Friday, December 08, 2006

Welcome to Cancer Country

Lung rockets, snouts, coffin nails, fags, tabs, butts, cancer sticks, tubes of joy, whatever you call them, have been back on the Indonesian news treadmill of late. The government is planning to ban cigarette advertising and raise the tax on smoking. This follows hot on the heels of Jakarta's largely ignored ban on smoking in public places; passive smoking being a danger to Jakarta's pristine air quality you understand. It would probably be far better to make catalytic converters on cars compulsory, but the passive smoking lobby will have their way. I have often wished that passive drinking were possible and that I could walk into a bar and get tipsy without spending a penny.... or spending a penny.

But back to smoking. Unlike the smoking in public places ban, raising tax and banning advertising is legislation that would actually stick, its success not being concomitant on either public goodwill or police enforcement, and thus could actually be effective. In this country there has been a 900% explosion in youth smoking in recent years and we all know that some local guys, not content with merely smoking two packs a day, seem to go through about two lighters a day.

Local cigarette companies are inevitably not happy about the proposed new laws. Anything that would jeopardize their gargantuan profits is a danger, and gargantuan they are indeed. According to a recent Tempo magazine survey of Indonesia's richest people, local cigarette moguls seem to be sitting pretty. At number two we find Mr Sampoerna, at number four is Mr Gudang Garam and at number five sits Mr. Djarum. Such wealth contrasts sharply with the women who still hand roll the cigarettes with their poor atrophied, calloused hands and earn about 50 Rupiah a year. With a big a tobacco market comes big profits. Western cigarette companies know this too and have been aggressively marketing in Asia and China since their home countries have clamped down on smoking and cigarette advertising and the percentage of the population is sparking up has decreased.

It should be, in theory at least, simple enough to ban cigarette advertising here. Other countries have managed it without too much trouble and many tobacco adverts in this country are absolutely ludicrous. Most of them like to insinuate a strong relationship between puffing away like a locomotive and sporting prowess. Mind you, the rugged Marlboro Man action hero riding his horse through the prairies isn't much better. The story of the original Marlboro Man dying of lung cancer is probably an urban myth but if he did indeed have the big C then no doubt he would have opted to have both lungs removed. "Take 'em both," he would have said, "I don't need 'em, I'm so rugged I'll grow gills and breathe like a fish."

I myself was actually in a cigarette ad once. Djarum had assembled a group of reprobate expats who all needed the money and got them to dress up in various national football team colors. The photos were used to promote the last European Championships on special packets and billboards. Thierry Henry? David Beckham? Both twenty a day men don't ya know. Banning all this nonsense is perhaps long overdue here. Personally I would like to see all adverts banned, not just cigarette adverts. The semiotic pollution and cultural debasement of our world is a serious issue and bow-tied advertising copywriters are surely the spawn of Satan.

Returning to cigarettes though, a proposal to up the anti on warning labels on packets of smokes has also been floated. Cigarette packets in Singapore now feature, as well as written warnings, actual pictures of brain haemorrhages and tar caked lungs which is a touch macabre perhaps. At the moment, Indonesian cigarette packets like to warn of impending impotence for smokers here. This is a claim which seems to ring a bit hollow in an over populated country of 250 million people. Perhaps your average Indonesian gentleman is drinking plenty of Extra Joss to counteract the anti potency effects of his Gudang Garams.

Ultimately though, in a free society, there is only so far that you can take anti-smoking legislation. Libertarians say that smokers smoke at their own risk and if someone wishes to open a bar and allow people to smoke in it, no one is forcing people to go there. Can there really still be people who don't know that smoking is bad for them and who believe that sparking up a Djarum will help them to win a 200 m sprint?

The sweet smell of the Kretek clove cigarette is a part of local culture and one of life's few pleasures for Indonesia's impoverished masses. This is increasingly the case as personal liberties are eroded elsewhere by the Sharia lobby. Can't gamble, drink, fornicate or even venture outside the house after 10 p.m. if you're female? Well, at least you can light one up and enjoy five minutes of carcinogenic pleasure (or 45 minutes if it's a Dji Sam Soe). Now where's my cough mixture?

Simon Pitchforth