Just a few kilometers after passing a towering Marlboro Man ad, a second billboard off the highway promotes cigarettes with a new American face: Kelly Clarkson.
The former American Idol winner invites fans to buy tickets to her upcoming concert in Jakarta. The logo of her sponsor is splashed in huge type above her head — the popular Indonesian cigarette brand LA Lights. Similar ads also run on TV.
Such in-your-face tobacco advertising has been banned for years in many other countries, but in Indonesia, the world’s fourth-most populous nation, tobacco companies have virtual free rein to peddle their products, from movies to sports sponsorships and television shows. The country remains one of the last holdouts that have not signed the WHO’s tobacco treaty.
Smoking has risen in Indonesia, where about 63 percent of all men light up and one-third of the overall population smokes, an increase of 26 percent since 1995. Smoking-related illnesses kill at least 200,000 annually in a nation of 235 million.
“Indonesia is a big concern, a big epidemic, a big population and very little control,” said Prabhat Jha, a tobacco control expert at the University of Toronto’s Centre for Global Health Research. “They have a chaotic taxation and regulatory structure. They have made the mistake of letting the Marlboro Man into the country.”
In recent months, anti-tobacco forces have rallied. A new health law has declared smoking addictive and urged the government to hammer out tobacco regulations. An anti-smoking coalition is pushing for tighter restrictions on smoking in public places, advertising bans and bigger health warnings on cigarette packages.
Public debate also exploded last month after Muhammadiyah, Indonesia’s second-largest Islamic organization, issued a fatwa banning smoking. Though not legally binding, the religious ruling does put pressure on smokers in the world’s most populous Muslim nation.
About a quarter of Indonesian boys aged 13 to 15 are already hooked on cigarettes that sell for about US$1 a pack, the WHO said.
Smoking is embedded in Indonesia’s culture. Wafts of a pungent mixture of tobacco and cloves, called kreteks, can be smelled in houses rich and poor across the vast archipelago.
A 2008 study on tobacco revenue in Indonesia showed that smokers spend more than 10 percent of their household income on cigarettes — three times more than they spend on education expenses such as school fees and books.
Indonesia remains one of the last places in the world where cigarette TV commercials still run, featuring rugged men and beautiful women smoking. Billboards plastered above four-lane highways encourage motorists stuck in Jakarta’s notorious traffic jams to “Go Ahead” or “Become a Man.” Leggy women in short skirts and strappy heels promote cigarettes at events, sometimes even giving out discounted or free samples.
Indonesia’s tobacco industry employs millions in the world’s fifth-largest cigarette-producing market. About 6 percent of the government’s revenue comes from cigarette taxes and a powerful tobacco lobby has blocked past regulation attempts, including a move to ban TV ads.
Any move to limit tobacco promotion and use in the country will require strong political will, but critics point out that even Indonesia’s smoke-happy neighbors China and Vietnam have signed the WHO’s tobacco treaty and imposed stronger controls.