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

Monday, August 21, 2017


Don’t quit – we’re addicted to your suffering  

Cancer wards in Indonesia should have special visitor viewing areas. Like club boxes at sporting events, the spectators would watch the count-down while the watched gasp their way to the siren.
These observatories will be solely for VIPs – Very Immoral People. This group includes tobacco company executives and their advertising agents. In the country next door they work in a barely regulated market, vigorously promoting a product which they know kills, cripples and impoverishes.
According to Australian cancer clinics, smoking more than doubles the chances of a heart attack or stroke; it’s responsible for 85 per cent of lung cancers.  This isn’t fake news – it’s science scripture.
Getting the VIPs to witness their customers’ agonies might be difficult.  Even if attendance was compulsory these guys are seriously rich; in Indonesia they’d buy their way out of any obligation.
Indonesia is one of just eight countries that’s neither a signatory nor a party to the World Health Organisation’s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control.  That puts the Republic way offside with the 180 states which ban or limit ads promoting smoking.
East Java is the heartland of tobacco production and Malang is at the centre.  There’s a cigarette factory directly opposite a Dutch era church and the town square. Even the banks don’t enjoy such a prestigious position.
Malang is also an education city supporting 28 tertiary institutions. Two of the biggest, the Universities of Malang and Brawijaya (around 30,000 students each) plus high schools spill their young learners onto a major road leading to the CBD.
At the first traffic lights they’re confronted by a giant billboard.  It reads in English: NEVER QUIT.  So they don’t.
More than 67 per cent of males over 15 smoke according to Indonesia’s Health Ministry. (The good news is that only three per cent of adult women are users.)
The Ministry predicts that unless serious attempts are made to butt-out the nation will lead the world in smokers by 2030. At the moment it’s number four after China, Russia and the US. While these countries are nudging public health ahead of tobacco company profits, Indonesian firms plan to double output.
That means building a market as the addicts wheeze away at a rate of around 400,000 a year.  So the kids need an introduction to Lady Nicotine who’ll mask facts with fantasies.  
What do lads want?  Fun times, macho adventure, staunch mates and gorgeous girlfriends.  Available for the rich, but few are so lucky.  The rest are puffing to find ‘satisfaction’, to ‘be bold’, become part of the ‘new generation’ and ‘get ahead’. 
That’s what the ads say – and not just in words.  Pictures show the healthiest and happiest youngsters any nation would be proud to display at the Olympics.  Marketing isn’t supposed to target minors so the agencies use adult models with teen features dancing, leaping, singing – all the things coughers can’t do.
Close to 30 million Indonesians live on less than US $25 a month according to the Statistics Agency. Fags are the second biggest household expense after rice.
There’s a price war currently underway with pack contents changing to suit all pockets.  A dozen for Rp 11,000 (an ash-flick above an Aussie dollar) from one brand, with a rival offering 16 for Rp 13,000.  You can’t buy a litre of milk for that money.
The wraps have small health warnings but not the plain packaging introduced in Australia and unsuccessfully challenged by Indonesia in the World Trade Organisation.
Excise on tobacco is just under half the base price though the WHO recommends more than two-thirds. The duties make up between ten and 12 per cent of the national budget.
The government is suffering a massive shortfall in revenue.  An amnesty to persuade citizens to declare money parked overseas scored US $365 billion. The target was five times higher.
 So ramping taxes on smokes could boost the health budget – currently three per cent of GDP and three times less than the OECD average.
But the manufacturers are a powerful lobby able to make reforms disappear in a puff of smoke. .
The big three are Hanjaya Mandala Sampoerna (owned by the US company Philip Morris), Gudang Garam and the Djarum Group.  To sanitise their sickening trade the companies sponsor scholarships, sporting events and pop concerts. 
The ad guys they hire have refined ways to by-pass prohibitions on showing cigarettes by picturing stacks of white coffee cups with the top one frothing.  ‘Mild’ is banned, so they call one product MLD, with the vertical stroke on the second letter highlighted.  Health warnings on TV ads flash so fast they’re illegible.
Some NEVER QUIT signs feature a sweating body builder (the sort who’d never smoke) or master craftsman, so any other interpretations of the message must be malicious misreadings.
There’s no doubt the industry is full of smarties. I once lodged for a month in the Malang home of a fine family where dad was a senior staffer with Rothmans and a good provider.  He never smoked and cautioned his kids against starting. 
But I reckon he should still take a turn in the cancer ward observation room.

First published in On Line Opinion, 21 August 2017:  See

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