Be a man, consume till it kills. It will

Jun 6, 2023
May 31, wooden calendar and smoking cigarette gray background.Concept for World No Tobacco Day.

The World Health Organisation’s No Tobacco Day last month had Australia announcing tough new ways to get smokers to quit. Next door the fag makers were doing the opposite.

Health Minister Mark Butler wants warnings on the smokes and even more gruesome images on the packets. Around 12 per cent of Australian adults smoke; the government’s goal is five per cent or less by 2030.

In the nation next door, 67 per cent of adult males smoke and the industry is doing its best to ramp that number. Health workers object but they’re as powerless as Australia’s anti-mining protesters.

Indonesia’s Big Baccy matches the US National Rifle Association for arrogance, its up-you outdoor hoardings shouting in English: NEVER QUIT.

The ads are devilishly clever, double entendres on special. They show sweating men in gyms punching bags, tackling extreme sports and Nat Geo adventures. Such costly pastimes are beyond most Indonesians but the substitutes are just a kiosk away.

For under $2 anyone can buy a packet of smokes, available almost everywhere, whatever the addict’s age, though supposedly illegal for under 18s. Can’t afford a full box and desperate for a drag? Roadside stalls sell singles.

Indonesia is one of the dirty eight, the countries not in the WHO’s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control. That puts a wide gulf between the Republic and the 180 states which ban or limit ads for smoking.

East Java is tobacco heartland centred on Malang where this column is being keyboarded. It’s also an education city supporting 15 tertiary institutions. The Universities of Malang State and Brawijaya (around 90,000 enrolments together) plus high schools spill their impressionable youth onto a major road leading to the CBD.

At the first traffic lights they rev throttles before a monster billboard. It shows a fella playing an arcade game admired by a coy girl: ‘Perfect combo – win the Queen’. Learn the lesson lads: Score with smoking – it’s cool.

It’s illegal to show the product so foreigners wouldn’t get the hints till they spot a tiny pic at the bottom of an oldie with a tracheotomy. This is a hole through the throat and into the windpipe so the sad sick man can breathe a little longer.

The compulsory warning has no impact. In Australia the messages are going to be updated and on the cigarettes because users have become desensitised.

More than two thirds of Indonesian men smoke according to health campaigners. The good news is that only three per cent of adult women are users, largely because the habit is culturally linked to prostitution.

Muslim scholars who damn booze everywhere have only declared smoking and vaping haram (forbidden) in public. Something more confronting than irony is needed.

According to UNICEF tobacco is Indonesia’s second biggest risk to health: ‘There are 600,000 premature deaths annually due to exposure to cigarette smoke, 28 per cent of which are children.’ Getting this horror to register with authorities is as tough as persuading US Republicans to back national gun control.

Indonesia is projected to lead the world in wheezer percentages by 2030. At the moment it ranks behind China and Russia. While some nations think well-being more important than company profits, Indonesian firms plan to boost output.

That means building a replacement market as the druggies cough their way to graveyards. So the kids need to lose their innocence to La Nico Tine, the greatest seductress since Cleopatra.

Apart from larger genitalia, pimply boys want fun minus accountability, loyal mate, big-bust girlfriends and full wallets. Few are so lucky in a nation where almost a third are seriously poor. So the ‘new generation’ inhales to find ‘satisfaction’ and ‘get ahead’.

The pictures show slim and suave models doing macho things impossible for those with emphysema.

For up-market customers, there’s The Diplomat, its message straight to the universal searching for self: ‘I chose, I live.’ The wording is enhanced by curly calligraphy. It uses English to suggest sophistication though few are fluent.

The current price war has pack contents changing to suit all lung diseases. A dozen starting at Rp 12,000 ($1.20) up to Rp 30,000 ($3) for twenty.

The average monthly wage in Jakarta is around $870, but half or less in the provinces. Fags are the third biggest household expense after ‘prepared foods’ and ‘cereals’, mainly rice.

The wraps are colourful, not plain as in Singapore and Australia. The four hoarse men of the apocalypse of addiction, Cuba, Indonesia, Honduras and the Dominican Republic challenged the West’s concern for consumers in the World Trade Organisation. In 2018 their efforts to keep attracting and killing got stubbed out.

Tax on tobacco in Indonesia is around half the base price; the WHO wants it to be at least a third as this is ‘the single most effective and cost-effective measure for reducing tobacco use.’

The tobacco industry reportedly employs about six million Indonesians. The government, fearful of the corporates throwing thousands of young women out of factories and incomes wilting for leaf farmers, treads nervously when an election is nigh. The next will be in February 2024.

The major traders in toxins are Hanjaya Mandala Sampoerna (owned by the US company Philip Morris), Gudang Garam and the Djarum Group. To decontaminate their image as mass poisoners they run ‘foundations’, though always retaining brand names.

Sampoerna even has a ‘university’ as part of its ‘corporate social responsibility’ programmes. Satire? Sadly, no. Prominent in the mainstream media is Djarum promoting sustainability. Its logo is a green tree in a brown hand. It should be a rotting lung in a surgeon’s glove.

The brand is owned by Indonesia’s two richest men, Robert and Michael Hartono who started the ‘foundation’ in 1986. Forbes magazine estimates the brothers’ net worth at US $42 billion.

The company makes the wildly popular kretek, a mix of tobacco with clove oil and buds which crackle when smoked.

The ad gurus have refined ways to bypass prohibitions. Commercials can’t be shown on TV before 9.30 pm when the littlies are supposed to be abed. But this law doesn’t apply to outdoor screens which start up at 6 am – in time for the school rush.

For the health lobby, 31 May was an important day to help stop smokers suiciding, which the Australian government delivered. To Indonesia’s tobacco industry and its slaves it was a reminder that this is no time to quit killing.

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