9 Nov 2012

Indonesia’s tobacco children

Indonesia is in the grip of a smoking epidemic with the proportion of child smokers rising dramatically. Jonathan Miller reports for Channel 4 News ahead of his investigation for Unreported World.

The health minister of Indonesia, the world’s fastest growing cigarette market, has pledged to sign a United Nations treaty developed in response to what the UN’s World Health Organisation has branded “the globalisation of the tobacco epidemic.”

Dr Nafsiah Mboi’s intention to sign the agreement will put her at loggerheads with Indonesia‘s powerful tobacco industry, a backbone of the national economy which provides millions of jobs.

In advance of a meeting of the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, scheduled to be held in the South Korean capital, Seoul, next week, the minister said an alarming increase in the number of child smokers in Indonesia has galvanised her determination to see the treaty signed.

Indonesia is among a tiny handful of countries, which include North Korea and Zimbabwe, not to have signed the UN tobacco control convention, which greatly restricts advertising, promotion and sponsorship of tobacco products and bans sales of cigarettes to minors.

Speaking to Channel 4’s Unreported World, Dr Mboi said the power of the tobacco lobby in Indonesia had, in the past, made it politically difficult to sign up to the UN agreement.

“A lot of people in the government said ‘we should not stop this because of the revenues. We’ve got the revenues from the tobacco tax, we are providing… employment for so many million people.'”

Asked whether her decision to take on the industry, given its importance to the Indonesian economy, would not make her unpopular, she replied: “So what? People who started smoking between five and nine years of age… has increased seven-fold. It’s a sin. Why are they protecting the tobacco industry when they know that so many young kids become the victims.”

Indonesia's tobacco children

More than two-in-three Indonesian adult males smoke. There are estimated to be around 90 million smokers in a country of 238 million people. The proportion of children who regularly smoke is rising and one teenager in four is a regular smoker before they turn 16.

Respiratory specialists consider this to be a health timebomb.

The Channel 4 team, whose documentary will be screened tonight at 7.30pm, filmed many children who were hooked on cigarettes up to four times the strength of the strongest legally on sale in Britain.

‘My Life, My Adventure’

Many said they were drawn to the habit by ubiquitous advertising, particularly television advertisements – which would be banned were Indonesia to sign up to the UN tobacco control protocol.

Of all the TV ads, the best known are those for Djarum Super. They are known as “My Life, My Adventure,” a big-budget production, which sets out to associate the brand with the magnificence of Indonesia’s most rugged scenery. It features a health warning at the end: 12 frames (half a second) long.

Cigarette companies sponsor rock concerts, jazz festivals and sporting events – including football, badminton, cycling and adventure sports. Last year, tobacco companies spent £142m advertising in Indonesia.

Channel 4's Unreported World: Indonesia's Tobacco Children

The Indonesian cabinet is reportedly split on the issue of whether to sign because the industry is a mainstay of the national economy. The taxation of tobacco companies contributes 10 per cent of national revenue, making it as crucial to Indonesia as the financial sector is to Britain. It also provides around 10 million jobs, directly and indirectly.

Nine out of ten Indonesian smokers smoke “kreteks” – strong, clove-flavoured cigarettes, the aroma of which infuses the entire archipelago. In recent years, western cigarette giants Philip Morris (the makers of Marlboro) and British American Tobacco have bought into the Indonesian kretek market.

In 2005, Philip Morris International bought a controlling share of a leading Indonesian tobacco firm, Sampoerna, for US$5-billion. Four years later, BAT bought Indonesia’s fourth largest cigarette company, Bentoel, for US$494m.

A senior insider from the industry, who met the Channel 4 team in Jakarta, said the big foreign firms were now “milking a cash cow”.

Children are not supposed to be working. Children are suppose to go to school, study and play. Instead, they work in an industry which produces cigarettes.

In September this year, the chief financial officer of Philip Morris International told an international conference that his firm’s “excellent results” in Asia – which were, he said, “driven in particular by Indonesia” had “more than offset a substantial decline in the EU region.”

A short distance from a village in which the Channel 4 team filmed a six-year-old smoker – who has recently cut back from smoking 20-a-day – children between 11 and 12 years of age were filmed picking and sorting tobacco which was supplied to Bentoel, the BAT subsidiary, and other companies.

“Child labour in the tobacco industry is dangerous work,” said Priyono Adi Nugroho, of Indonesia’s Child Protection Institute. “Children are not supposed to be working. Children are suppose to go to school, study and play. Instead, they work in an industry which produces cigarettes. Then they start smoking themselves and see it as nothing out of the ordinary.”

In a statement to Channel 4, BAT said it took a strong stance against child labour and always encouraged its respresentatives to tell farmers what its corporate policy was on child labour. BAT’s Bentoel Group said it did not employ any child labour, either directly or indirectly and said it was “actively involved in programmes to prevent the exploitative use of child labour in leaf growing areas.”

Jonathan Miller’s documentary Indonesia’s Tobacco Children will be shown on Unreported World, after Channel 4 News tonight at 7.30pm.