The shape of the world a generation from now will be influenced far more by how we communicate the values of our society to others than by military or diplomatic superiority. William Fulbright, 1964

Wednesday, May 31, 2006


© Duncan Graham 2006

Today (31 May) is World Anti-Smoking Day – a time to ask: Will any Indonesian government ever Quit?

It seems unlikely whatever the health warnings, for the nation is absolutely, totally addicted to tobacco.

Not necessarily hooked on nicotine but its after effects: The sweet and deeply satisfying taste you get when inhaling large amounts of money.

Last year that came to a reported Rp 30 trillion (US $3.3 billion) which is no incentive to stub out.

Anti-smoking activists argue that if the Indonesian government boosted the tax take it could maintain revenues while discouraging smokers through higher prices. The cost of cigarettes by Western standards is laughably low. Most brands sell for less than one US dollar for a pack of 12. The price in Australia is seven times greater.

Of course a price rise would make addicts fume and they might express their wrath through monster street demos, something the government doesn’t want. Nor do commuters.

Curiously there aren’t likely to be any protests outside the huge tobacco factories in East Java even though they make a product that kills and cripples millions.

That’s because the companies employ tens of thousands who depend on their salaries to stay alive in a country with no social security net to catch the unemployed.

How many Indonesians die from their addiction? Certainly far more than those who perish through the use of narcotics. But don’t expect a Say No To Smokes banner campaign like the one targeting drugs.

(But isn’t nicotine a drug, Daddy? Yes, but it’s made and used by nice, decent, law-abiding and moral folk – so that’s OK.)

A World Health Organisation (WHO) report said 23 per cent of Indonesians over the age of 15 were smoking in 1995. That’s around 40 million people generating more smoke than Merapi.

That same authority claims half of long-term smokers will die from tobacco-related diseases. That’s 20 million unnecessary deaths, the majority gruesomely ghastly as anyone who’s sat by a relative or friend suffering from cancer will confirm. Most victims are men (few women smoke in Indonesia) and likely to be breadwinners, so the families also suffer.

Doctors claim tobacco use is the single largest preventable cause of disease and premature death. Before they cough their last most sick smokers spend time in hospital. Logically any reduction in smoking would have a positive effect on health care with beneficial repercussion for those whose illness isn’t self-inflicted.

Faced with these internationally accepted facts you’d expect Indonesian health authorities to be lobbying hard to make the archipelago a smoke-free zone.

No doubt they are but they’re out-gunned by the big battalions and their awesome firepower. In this country these are reported to include not just the manufacturers but also the departments of industry and finance, manpower, industry, trade and agriculture.

They don’t want the government to sign the WHO’s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC) – so it hasn’t. However it has been signed by 168 other countries.

Never mind the deaths, the heartbreak, and the loss of family income. Ignore the health facts. Just keep the jobs intact and the taxes flowing.

Stripped of emotion and considered economically Jakarta’s stand against the world’s medical authorities has some benefits.

Smokers keep thousands of hospitals, doctors, nurses and other health professionals employed. The funeral business depends heavily on smokers. So does the advertising industry.

This is one of the few countries left where advertising is legal. The Tourism Department should exploit this for all it’s worth:

Visit Indonesia and see marvellous multi-colored billboards and snappy TV commercials showing happy, fit, well-adjusted, good-looking young people climbing mountains, having fun and adventures, celebrating life – and guess why!

There’s an intellectual component to all this. You won’t see a picture of the product or anyone using it so you might wonder why they’re happy and hopeful? Answer: Because they’re going to meet their Maker sooner than the rest of us!

If Indonesia Quit the jobless would include heart surgeons and grave-diggers, ad agency creative directors and headstone carvers, tobacco farmers and roadside hawkers … Just imagine if they all packed the streets round the House of Representative’s complex and how we’d all get to work.

Big businesses like to talk about their corporate responsibilities. Get real! If the tobacco tzars believed that they’d close their cigarette businesses and open factories making ethical products.

Let’s clear the air for a moment. Too many people and too much money depend on tobacco, so nothing will change.

Many things in Indonesia are compulsory, but smoking is like the takeover of Papua - an act of free choice.

If you decide to ignore all the facts and warnings – well, that’s your decision. But please don’t blow your filthy fumes in the faces of those of us who don’t fancy heart attacks, impotency and cancer.

Just enjoy, ya!

(First published in The Jakarta Post, Wed 31 May 2006)




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