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A Deep Purple Haze

06 Oct 10

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.


  1. Tim Jones November 22, 2010 at 12:12 am Reply

    Another fascinating update. I recall visiting Prague in 1991 and going into just about ANY restaurant. It was choking with a grey haze. It seemed like everyone was smoking. They were a good 15 to 20 years behind the US in terms of cracking down on smoking in public places. Sounds like Indonesia is like Prague was in 1991.

    • Willman November 22, 2010 at 7:56 am Reply

      Tim, you’re right. There is almost a wild west feel to the smoking here. Cigarettes are everywhere, and unlike the U.S. where one pack is nearing 10 dollars, smokes are cheap. Fortunately, we’re not exposed to it as much as we could be.

  2. Renee November 22, 2010 at 11:53 pm Reply

    WOW!!! Question. Does the Indonesia’s Health Minister, dang Rahayu Sedyaningsih, or anyone in his admin smoke? With that sort of profit, I must wonder if they are a front for a back. (sigh) What is this world coming to?

    You are making a difference Dale. Keep up the good work!!!!! Send me a few pics with that Nikon of yours.


    • Willman November 23, 2010 at 7:55 am Reply

      Hi Renee – thanks for reading! And actually, given that so many men smoke, I’m sure some in the health ministry do. I had to go to the police department a couple of weeks ago (I’ll write about that in a bit) and virtually everyone in the main room was smoking. But it’s not just an Indonesian thing. Men in much of eastern Europe smoke quite heavily as well. These less-developed countries are strong growth markets for big tobacco.

  3. Michael Charters November 23, 2010 at 1:06 am Reply

    I have always hated the smell of cigarette smoke, and I remember the heavy use of tobacco in Indonesia from my three trips to Borneo. The Dayak assistants at the orangutan camp at Tanjung Puting were always smoking. About the only thing that made it slightly more tolerable was that they usually smoked a type of cigarette that had a less offensive smell.

    • Willman November 23, 2010 at 7:57 am Reply

      Hi Michael! Come visit, and go to Borneo again. You’re right about the less-offensive smells. I suspect it has something to do with the various additives.

  4. Tweets that mention A Deep Purple Haze — November 23, 2010 at 10:53 am Reply

    […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Andy Revkin, Jonathan Stankiewicz. Jonathan Stankiewicz said: RT @Revkin: Environmental communicator Dale Willman writes on Indonesia (government and citizens) addiction to tobacco: […]

  5. dave lathrop November 24, 2010 at 8:33 am Reply

    dale… this reminds me of too many long meetings in too many Tokyo offices in the 90s too… i have to say, selfishly, that i read this and revel in the fact of our progress on this front, if lacking sadly on others… anyway, nice to read your stuff…

  6. Tom Dunkel November 24, 2010 at 11:01 pm Reply

    Dale: Perhaps I’m misconstruing these blogs. I’ve started smoking (slowly working my way up to three packs a day) because, I dunno, it seems exotic/worldly. I also stopped by the high school down the block and asked this 16-year-old girl if she’d like to be my driver. (Police stopped by my house that night. They’ve apparently never heard of Bandung.)
    Nonetheless, please keep enlightening me. I need the stimulation here in liveable DC.


  7. John Ryan November 24, 2010 at 11:11 pm Reply

    Hi Dale — I wonder if anyone has studied the health impacts of kretek smoke vs. standard tobacco cigarette smoke? Also, you say tobacco has an economic hold on Indonesia — how so? Is cigarette manufacturing really a big contributor to the Indonesian economy (especially if you subtract its big drag on the economy because of its undoubtedly gigantic toll on public health)? Cheers, John

    • Willman November 27, 2010 at 10:35 pm Reply

      Hi John. I’ll bet they have, but I suspect you’ll find something in the states before you would here. As I recall, being an old guy, clove cigarettes and some other scents/additives were a big deal in the U.S. a few decades ago, and that interest was accompanied by some studies. I may have to see if I can find something.

  8. Deb Kellehr December 7, 2010 at 10:40 pm Reply

    I, too, hate cig smoke and was glad when NY passed the smoking ban in resturants, Strange to go to other States and you have to remember to ask for a non-smoking section.

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