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, May 28, 2018


Buy fantasy fun, light up, die young

Do advertising agencies have ethics?  Questionable in Indonesia where a NEVER QUIT campaign is running free. In a market where controls are lax and the government dithers, the tobacco lobby makes the US National Rifle Association look responsible. Duncan Graham reports from the smoking heartland of Java.

Ibu (Mrs) Liya (above) is a trader most rare, close to being unique.  She deserves an award.  Instead the small businesswoman in Solo, Central Java, is losing customers.

She refuses to sell cigarettes from her roadside warung (eatery) “because smoking is not good for people’s health.”

Indeed, though Western visitors rightly reckon that the war waged on the weed by health authorities has never been prosecuted with Australian vigor. 

The signs are obvious - literally. Many cities are visually polluted by huge billboards and banners urging consumers to buy. 

Ad-agencies in Indonesia seem unworried about using their talents to sell poisons. Their target is the young; as an estimated 450,000 coughers die every year the industry has to replenish the pool lest producers follow their wheezing customers and spit away profits with the phlegm.

More than 180 countries have banned tobacco advertising though not the land next door which hasn’t ratified the UN Framework Convention on Tobacco Control. The other bludgers include the Dominican Republic, Cuba and Honduras.

This sick trio also backed Indonesia’s failed bid last year to have the World Trade Organization stub out Australian plain packaging laws.

Indonesian ads are cheeky and pernicious though clothed otherwise. Popular now is the slogan in English: Never Quit.

‘Quit’ is widely used in the West to wean users. So the text has been flipped to double-entendre with pictures of sweating athletes seemingly striving for greatness.

To entice those into exercising mind above muscle, a rival company is pitching for students.  The caption over a photo of a bookish man at a desk reads in Indonesian: ‘Overcome tiredness, achieve success’.

On the crass-scale these rank alongside the infamous More doctors smoke Camel than any other cigarette ads that littered US mags last century.

Indonesian law prohibits images of users lighting up which worries the industry not one flick of a fag.  Why show gap-tooth yellow-gum inhalers facing agonising departures? Better promote bright young things entering a life of escapades and fun in exotic spots.

The guys race up mountains, skydive, kitesurf and jetski - pastimes which need lusty lungs, not bronchitis. 

Megabuck videos mimic Nat Geo adventures in wild places, the hazards challenged by guys in four-wheel drives while pretty lassies laugh approval of their blokey behaviour.  This being Indonesia the cheerers are modestly dressed as the people’s morality must not be damaged.

An estimated 67 per cent of adult males smoke, though only three per cent of women because many associate the habit with prostitution.  Laws force advertisers to add health warnings but not as the main message. Alerts are footnotes and absent on posters the big brands use to sponsor youth concerts above their logos.

The descriptor ‘mild’ is supposed to be off limits so one company has invented MLD, highlighting the vertical stroke on the L.

Brands advertise  special manufacturing techniques like ‘triple roasted’. One claims it’s using ‘reduced smell technology’.

A year ago reports forecasting a total TV and radio ad shut-down set the broadcasters quivering; they get more than half a billion Oz dollars a year pushing nicotine arguing that as smoking is legal they have the right to screen.

The threatened TV ban quickly vanished; now companies want heritage status for kretek cigarettes which use cloves and were developed in Indonesia in the 19th century.  If successful promotions could by-pass other controls.

Every assault on profits, however MLD, is countered by prodding politicians to remember half a million growers and 600,000 factory workers, mostly women who’d have few other job prospects, depend on selling death.

The tax take rises every year with a 10.4 per cent excise ramp scheduled for July, though 13 per cent was originally proposed. So manufacturers have been playing with sizes and running a price war, promoting one company offering 16 for Rp 10,000 ($ 1). 

A pack of 25 in next door Australia can now cost more than $35.

Statistics are contradictory: Customs and Excise says sales in Indonesia dropped last year by 1.6 per cent - others claim production rose 13 per cent boosting government revenue to USD 14 billion.

Measure this against Australia: With a population one-tenth of Indonesia’s and where less than 15 per cent smoke the government reaps almost $10.7 billion.

The other hoary line is that ads are designed to get smokers to switch brands, not encourage uptake. However a Muhammadiyah University study showed almost half the smoking teens surveyed started because they identified with the lads in the ads. The World Health Organisation reckons one in four teen boys carry smokes in their school satchels.

Though supplying minors is illegal the kids have no trouble buying - though not from Ibu Liya’s warung where she takes her principled but solitary stand.

Duncan Graham ( is an Australian journalist writing for the English-language media in Indonesia.

First published in On-line Opinion 28 May 2018. See:

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