As Western countries place increasing pressure on the large cigarette companies
they have now found the ‘perfect’ market....
Ross B. Taylor AM
Arrive at Indonesia’s international airport in Jakarta, and you can’t miss the number of billboards telling you that smoking is ‘part of the good life’. And if you believe the message of these large and imposing advertisements, smoking is even better if you are young and are seeking ‘fun, happiness’ and an ‘active’ life.
As western countries like Australia and the US A enforce even stronger bans and taxes on the use of tobacco products, the major manufacturers have not reformed their ways. Like paedophiles they have just moved to a newer and younger marketplace, and in this respect Indonesia has proven fertile ground.
With 250 million people, many who are young and on low incomes, and desperately in need of work, the tobacco industry has provided much needed income and job security. Today the industry employs over ten million Indonesians and puts more than US$12.5 billion annually into the economy.
With ‘only’ 73 million people smoking there exists outstanding opportunities for tobacco companies to expand their businesses by marketing cigarettes to younger people. Go to any nightclub in Jakarta and you will find plenty of young, well-dressed and good looking Indonesian girls and men promoting cigarettes with offers of free samples to anyone passing buy.
Duncan Graham, a journalist based in Malang tells of a giant billboard that promotes smoking by proudly stating, “Never Quit”. ”And they don’t”, says Graham.
But the greatest marketing ploy has been in the pricing. Local cigarettes (called ‘Kreteks’) can be purchased for less than one dollar whilst well-known brands such as ‘Marlboro’ or ‘LA Lights’ can be bought for just A$1.90 a pack. With massive economies-of-scale, low taxes and cheap labour, even at these prices companies can make millions of dollars profit each year. But more importantly-and strategically - they get the young people ‘hooked’ for life and thus guarantee strong demand for years to come!
The cigarettes can be bought almost anywhere by kids, young adults or anyone who wants them. This is – by every measurement- truly ‘nirvana’ for the big cigarette companies such as Philip Morris. And their smokes can be ‘enjoyed’ in restaurants, pubs, theatres without any consideration for those who do not wish to consume the poisonous fumes.
So at what cost do liberal, or no smoking, laws come to the health of Indonesians?
Statistics are not that reliable but research by Dr Sarah Barber of the Berkeley University in the USA suggests that over 400,000 Indonesians every year die as a direct result of smoking. A further 25,000 people die from passive smoking.
The impact on families as a result of these deaths and the misery and desperation cannot be measured. Indonesia’s health system is not designed to cater for such a large and growing number of smoking-related cases, so for many they simply die at home ‘with cancer’.
What is known is that approximately 11% of the family budget in Indonesia is spent on smoking compared to 2% on health and 2% on education. The amount spent on smoking is more than double that of what is spent on meat, fish and eggs for example.
As Dr Barber points out, if smoking expenditure was to be reduced, the money would not be ‘put under the bed’ as many Indonesians have very low savings rates. Any surplus money would inevitably be spent on more productive items such as food and lifestyle activities that would improve one’s health; not destroy it, whilst also assisting the overall economy.
So why doesn’t Indonesia move to either ban or at least restrict the promotion and marketing of smoking? Sadly, Indonesia - in the short term – believes it needs the cigarette industry.
For many Indonesians who are forced to live on a day-to-day basis, the concept of giving up their job and income today (Indonesia has no unemployment scheme) in return for better health in ten years time, would be met with complete cynicism and anger. And the tobacco companies know it! This is a truly captive market.
Australians have also been educated by strong and active anti-cancer lobby groups who have, thankfully, informed us of the dangers of smoking. Such groups in Indonesia, if they even did exist, would be hunted down and destroyed under the argument that they are sentencing thousands of people to unemployment and poverty.
In the meantime, the owners of the major companies manufacturing cigarettes in Indonesia, holiday in their overseas mansions – including here in Perth - knowing that in years to come thousands of young people in their home country will suffer a terrifying and premature death, as a result of the boom in cigarette consumption, whilst leaving the dreams and hopes of their children ‘up in smoke’.
Ross Taylor is an active cancer campaigner and author of “Living Simply with Cancer” in Australia and the president of the WA-Based Indonesia Institute Inc.