When I was a kid, my dad smoked. It didn’t seem too unusual back then – many people smoked in the U.S. in the 60s. In fact, 1966 was a high point for smoking – more than 57% of young men between the ages of 20 and 24 lit up, while more than 42% of the entire population was puffing away. It was big tobacco’s glory years in America.
Dad was rather rude about his smoking. I remember riding in the car one winter day engulfed in a bluish haze of cigarette smoke. As it happens, I have always gotten a little sick when I’m around too much smoke, so I asked dad if he could stop smoking. “Shut up and roll down your window” was his rapid reply.
There has been a drastic change in U.S. smoking levels since then. After years of education about the dangers of tobacco, slightly more than 20% of the U.S. population now lights up – less than half the rate back in 1966. Today, you can walk into a restaurant or bar in a large number of states without worrying about smelling like the inside of an ashtray by the time you leave, because smoking is banned in many public spaces. And when home, I really don’t worry much about getting sick from too much tobacco smoke exposure.
Making cigarettes though is a big, multi-national business. Lost revenue in one country means more effort is needed to increase markets elsewhere. And Indonesia is ground-central for elsewhere. In other words, lives would seem to matter less than profit.
Indonesia, a country of about 227 million people, is now the fifth largest cigarette market in the world. Remember that story from earlier this year about the two year old kid, Ardi Rizal, with a two-pack-a-day habit? You guessed it – he lives in Indonesia. He started smoking when he was 18 months old. (His parents claimed he would scream and cry until he got his cigarettes. But they say they have finally weaned him off them – he apparently went into rehab. If I were to guess, they probably accomplished this feat by giving him Big Macs instead – McDonald’s is also pretty big over here, another successful American export)
Indonesia is a major front in the cigarette wars. About 60% of the men here smoke, according to government statistics, but just 5% of the women do. So cigarette advertising, which as near as I can tell is mostly unregulated, is heavily targeted at two potential areas for growth – women, and children.
The Indonesian government does relatively little to stop this capitalist invasion. In fact, millions of people here are at work hand-rolling a particularly popular type of cigarette, called Kretek. These are cigarettes made with various flavors added along with the tobacco. Clove is a big favorite. In fact, the name of this type of cigarette actually describes the sound of burning cloves.
Indonesia’s Health Minister, Dang Rahayu Sedyaningsih, says his department is in the middle of writing a tobacco control law, but given the economic hold of tobacco on Indonesia, it’s hard to see if any new measure that is finally passed into law will really have any teeth.
In the meantime, part of my task here is to keep the smoke away from the kids.