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Not so smoking gun

Publication Date : 15-01-2013


By mid-2014 Indonesia will begin to be a healthier nation — if we can slide down the utterly unenviable world ranking regarding the number of smokers in this country. A government regulation signed just before Christmas and announced on Wednesday will make selling cigarettes much harder.

The regulation restricts the forms and timing of broadcast tobacco advertisements and their billboards will be banned from major roads.

The labels of “mild”, “light” or “slim” suggesting safer products will also be banned.

We are forced to join the spoilers, however, who have criticised the regulation for being too little, too late. Starting January next year, all 240 million citizens will be entitled to health insurance. However, while the government reaped 77 trillion rupiah (US$7.98 billion) from tobacco taxation last year, economic losses and health costs from smoking-associated diseases reached 245.4 trillion rupiah, the Health Ministry said.

Yet, the tobacco industry is given an 18-month deadline to place graphic and text warnings regarding smoking on 40 per cent of every cigarette packet. The regulation itself should have been issued in 2010 following the passing of the 2009 Health Law — the one with the mysterious vanishing clause on tobacco, before lawmakers said it was an oversight.

Health Minister Nafsiah Mboi, a former UN official, has been pushing for the regulation since she recently came into office, smilingly dismissing allegations that the government was killing the livelihoods of millions of tobacco farmers. The minister is going slow and steady, defending the planned increase in excise tax for tobacco by an average of 8.5 per cent despite demands of a higher increase, saying a gradual hike was better to avoid too much resistance.

Indeed, the prolonged deadline is merely a reminder of how public health has been sacrificed to habits and profits feeding the tobacco industry. Achieving only 40 per cent of package coverage for warnings has taken this long; although as health advocates point out, this percentage is the smallest among Asean countries.

The regulation may bring us closer to finally ratifying the UN convention on tobacco control.

But how can a slow and steady regulation curb a widespread habit, which is blamed for causing totally preventable diseases and disabilities, with more than 85 per cent being passive smokers who are primarily exposed to cigarette smoke in the home?

The Global Adult Tobacco Survey reported in 2011 that 67.4 per cent of males aged 15 years and over were active smokers, the world’s highest figure. The World Health Organisation stated that smokers also included a quarter of boys aged 13 to 15. Many low-income households spend the second-largest part of their income on cigarettes, after rice. The ubiquitous warung rokok or cigarette kiosks rake in a large portion of sales — with cigarettes being sold individually.

The shocking exposure of smoking and swearing on toddlers may have added pressure for the ban preventing the sale of cigarettes to anyone under 18. Yet even after 2014, the industry will still be allowed to sponsor events as long as they “do not involve anyone under the age of 18”.

Legislators say it is up to smokers to decide whether to kick the habit even with the horrendous warnings and price increases, but that the government should go all out to protect the public.

Unless the regulation is firmly enforced, going all out to protect the industry will be the more evident measure in this country, the world’s tobacco haven.

*US$1=9,630 rupiah


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