Indonesia’s weak regulations on cigarette sales and advertising make it the last remaining haven for the international tobacco industry, says a consumer protection activist marking World No Tobacco Day.
Tulus Abadi, manager of the Indonesian Consumer Protection Foundation (YLKI), pointed out on Wednesday that although China and India had more smokers than Indonesia, the latter was the only country in the Asia-Pacific region not to have ratified the World Health Organization Framework Convention on Tobacco Control.
That lumps Indonesia in a group of just 11 countries, alongside Somalia and Zimbabwe, that have not ratified the FCTC.
This, Tulus said, was because the country’s powerful tobacco lobby was hard at work undermining the government’s tobacco control policies.
“Take, for instance, Government Regulation No. 81 of 1999,” he said. “That contained quite a spectacular clause, one that banned tobacco advertising on electronic media.”
The regulation was issued by Farid Anfasa Moeloek, the health minister under President B.J. Habibie and a prominent tobacco-control activist. It was maintained under President Abdurrahman “Gus Dur” Wahid, but promptly repealed when Megawati Sukarnoputri became president.
Tulus said other indications of the tobacco industry’s interference could be seen in the omission of nicotine from a list of addictive substances in the 1992 Health Law; in constitutional reviews filed against regional bylaws on smoking-free zones; and in delays to the planned issuance of a government regulation on tobacco control.
The theme for this year’s World No Tobacco Day, which falls today, is Tobacco Industry Interference. The WHO says the campaign “will focus on the need to expose and counter the tobacco industry’s brazen and increasingly aggressive attempts to undermine the FCTC because of the serious danger they pose to public health.”
“The tobacco industry has used its economic power, lobbying and marketing machinery, and manipulation of the media to discredit scientific research and influence governments in order to propagate the sale and distribution of its deadly product,” the organization says.
“Furthermore, the tobacco industry continues to inject large philanthropic contributions into social programs worldwide to create a positive public image under the guise of corporate social responsibility.”
Samlee Plianbangchang, director of the WHO’s Southeast Asia region, said in a statement released on Wednesday that governments in the region needed to do more to tackle this interference, particularly in light of the marketing methods being employed by the tobacco industry.
One in 10 schoolchildren in the region is offered free tobacco products, he said, while in some countries tobacco companies are suing governments over restrictions on cigarette packaging, on the grounds that their freedom of expression is being violated.
Tulus said there are other more subtle ways that the industry gets its message across, including via corporate social responsibility programs and scholarships.
He argued that as a “harmful industry,” big tobacco should not be allowed to carry out CSR programs. CSR, he said, was meant to show a company’s responsibility to the local people and one of its key values was compliance with the law.
“But we all know that the tobacco industry is the least compliant when it comes to the regulations,” Tulus said.
Arist Merdeka Sirait, chairman of the National Commission for Child Protection (Komnas Anak), said that while he was not opposed to tobacco companies doing CSR, he objected to use of their brands in the programs.
“If they are sincere in helping others, people don’t have to know that the help came from a cigarette company,” he said.
He argued that CSR, charity work or scholarships from big tobacco were no different from advertisements.
“If [the brands] continue to be mentioned, it will be planted in our children’s minds that cigarette companies are good.”
But Hasan Aoni Aziz Us, from the Association of Indonesian Cigarette Producers (Gappri), said tobacco companies should not be discouraged from doing valuable work through CSR.
“Every year, there is never enough funding from the state budget or regional budget for development,” he said recently. “Cigarette companies help fill that hole.”