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

Thursday, January 16, 2014


Tobacco Road- where does it end?

How does Indonesia differ from its neighbors?  Let me count the ways.

Where to start?  History, language, religion, culture, scenery …

On second thoughts that’s not a good idea. Insufficient space.  Let’s concentrate on just one – streetscapes.

Welcome to the country rated AAA - the Archipelago of Awful Advertisements.  Find a road without one means a public order gang has just ripped down an unauthorized banner.  Hang about – another crew pasting updates won’t be far behind.

The government is missing a marvellous opportunity to promote nostalgia tourism, for this extraordinarily rich and beautiful country is one of the last places left where tobacco promotion still flourishes in the wild.

Despite attempts by other democracies to kill off the endangered species, in Indonesia the aptly named baliho (billboards) thrive in an environment of political timidity nurtured by the fertile minds of powerful lobbyists.

Why gaze at mountains serene and paddy green when between viewer and view can be a baliho featuring apparently lithe and joyful young folk exploring the wilderness? That’s after gulping a lungful of toxins from a brand suggesting a clean rural lifestyle. 

Prefer to be entertained indoors? The TV ads are Hobbit quality, featuring exotic locations and clear-skinned sophisticates.  They inhabit a universe far from the prematurely wrinkled yellowgums who use the ‘exclusive’ products while pushing overladen pedicabs. 

We do irony so breathtakingly well it’s worth including in visitor brochures.  Take souvenir snaps of locals lighting up under NO SMOKING signs; video little lads blowing smoke rings at school bus stops. 

Fifty years ago yesterday (11 Jan) the US surgeon general took a deep breath and pronounced “cigarette smoking contributes substantially to mortality from certain specific diseases and to the overall death rate”.

That landmark declaration opened the war on nicotine. Among the artillery pieces were warnings on packets and advertisements.

Indonesia and others agreed, adding a ban on images showing people sucking the noxious weeds. Superfluous – the alerts reveal what’s being marketed.

Big Tobacco’s defences were breached, though only briefly.  Elsewhere the ads were bombarded with health facts and eventually outlawed, like poison gas.  The industry fought back with sponsorship of sporting and cultural events, but defences were strengthened and the enemy slowly retreated.

Though not here.

Dying to get to a rock concert?  You can, literally, courtesy of companies whose products kill more than 300,000 Indonesians annually, often in their most productive prime.

Because the research shows links between price and consumption another weapon employed has been taxation, with levies ramped across the world.

Though not here.

Taxes make up close to 50 per cent of the US $1.30 average packet price: That’s mild and mentholated when compared to nations next door.  In Singapore you cough up $US 9.70, and in Australia a king-size US $17.70. Gasp!

No wonder less than 20 per cent of adult male Aussies indulge compared with an estimated 65 per cent in Indonesia.

Yet even that heavy-calibre hit to the wallet hasn’t been crippling enough for the medical profession.  Buying smokes Down Under now requires the sort of furtive turned-up collar behavior once needed to purchase condoms.

“Excuse the fedora Sir, I just wonder if you stock any of those, you know, men things like, well, ah, you know what I mean …”

In Australian supermarkets the secret counters are backed by chests of numbered black drawers, like a columbaria.  The packets inside show ghastly pictures of cancerous tongues and rotting feet with the product name in small print at the bottom.

This June Indonesia will introduce larger text and picture warnings on packets. Next to other countries these moves are low-tar.

Anti-smoking advocates reckon plain packaging is the ultimate weapon of mass deterrence apart from banning sales.

Will it work?  The industry is now in the courts battling to preserve its brands.  Other countries watch with interest. If the companies lose Marlboro Man will have to remain in Boot Hill where he’s been decaying for decades in much of the world.

But not here without a change of political will.  Though three actors have succumbed to lung cancer, MM will still be riding Indonesia’s highways, lasso ready to snare the next generation of addicts. Baliho, cowboy!

(First published in The Jakarta Post 12 January 2014)


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