Smoking and sensationalism

Shortly before I left for my trip, I had the chance to watch the latest Vanguard documentary, entitled “Sex, Lies and Cigarettes.” It’s now available on Youtube, with Indonesian subtitles to boot. Check it out before reading this post, if you have the chance.

When I first saw this piece, I had an immediate, visceral reaction. How could Western tobacco companies be so shamelessly exploiting this developing nation? What could I do about it when I arrived in Sumatra? What would I write about it for my blog?

Throughout my time in Indonesia (ten weeks in eight provinces) I took note of what I saw around me relating to this issue. And, politically incorrect as it may be, my general conclusion by the end was… this is it? This is what all the fuss is about?

First, let me state that I do not support “big tobacco” and in general, I’d love to see smoking become less prevalent around the world. But after witnessing the reality on the ground in Indonesia, I was able to see how sensationalist the documentary is, how it’s been edited in ways to make certain points that may not be valid, and how it fails to look at the problem within its cultural context, giving it an ethnocentric perspective that appeals to the western viewer.

Here are some points the documentary tries to make, along with my related impressions from Indonesia.

1. “Smoking is extremely prevalent in Indonesia. Virtually everyone smokes, and a significant number of young children are starting to smoke.” Indonesians smoke. I heard this not only from the documentary, but also from guidebooks and friends who had been in Indonesia before. Stepping off the plane in Medan, Sumatra, I expected to be engulfed in a huge cloud of cigarette smoke. I was so sure everyone would be smoking that I was surprised to see only a handful of men lighting up outside.

But as I spent more and more time in the country, I noted many other people who were not smoking. Three brothers in their twenties, not one of whom smokes. A driver on an eight-hour bus ride not smoking out the window or taking a cigarette break. A 19-year-old martial arts master who’d never even think to pick up a cigarette.

None of the expert cigarette rollers at the Sampoerna factory smoke. It might cut down on their efficiency…

Imagine my surprise when I finally went to an authoritative source to discover that Indonesia is nowhere near the top of the list when it comes to per capita cigarette consumption. I thought it might have been overlooked until I noticed it all the way down at number 52! That puts countries like Australia, Israel, and yes, the US – ahead of Indonesia in cigarette consumption. This can be explained by the fact that there is a double standard for smoking in Indonesian culture – traditionally, men do it and women don’t.  Of the several Indonesian women I met, just two were smokers (ironically, I saw more foreign women smoking in the “health and wellness” hub of Ubud, Bali, than anywhere else on my trip). It’s pretty remarkable how few Indonesian women smoke these days, considering the ubiquitous tobacco advertising and foreign influence.

As for children? The youngest child I saw smoking was around 14, and he was the lone smoker among his group of friends. While I’m sure younger kids have tried cigarettes (they may be doing it more behind closed doors), there is less visible evidence of underage smoking than I have seen in places like Quebec or Israel.

Teens hanging out after school in Yogyakarta. No cigarettes…

2. “Tobacco companies aggressively market their products in Indonesia. Most of this advertising is coming from the West, exploiting a population that is largely unaware cigarettes are harmful.” It’s true that tobacco advertising in Indonesia is everywhere. On major roads, it seems like 90% of the billboards are cigarette ads, and competing tobacco companies practically wallpaper rural towns with their promotional posters. But according to the documentary, Marlboro signs are everywhere and the poor Indonesians have no idea that being a “cowboy” might give them cancer. In my experience, the vast majority of tobacco advertising in Indonesia is posted by – surprise! – Indonesian tobacco companies. The largest of them, Sampoerna, has been owned by Philip Morris since 2006 – but it still operates within Indonesia and has a long history in the country. Kretek (clove cigarette) smoking was developed in Indonesia, has been around for decades, and was originally considered to be a medical treatment.

Popular coffee shop in Aceh, fully sponsored by Sampoerna tobacco & decked out in cigarette ads.

In the documentary, we see the reporter flipping on the TV in his hotel room and watching cigarette commercial after cigarette commercial. In fact, these commercials may only be shown after 9:30 PM.  In my experience, the majority of local channels were far more likely to be advertising baby formula. As for the population being unaware that cigarettes are harmful, prominently placed on every tobacco ad (often helping me identify them as such) is a government warning nearly identical to the one we’ve had in the US since 1985. The message conveyed by the documentary – that the health hazards of smoking are still largely up for debate in Indonesia – seems off the mark and almost offensive considering the presence of these warnings.

3. “Young people are specifically targeted by these marketing campaigns.”  Most of the tobacco billboards and other display ads I saw barely included more than the name and logo of the company. Few images of people and never cartoon characters or anything else specifically targeting children. The documentary takes issue with tobacco companies sponsoring big concerts and other events that might attract youth. The reality is that tobacco is one of the biggest industries in Indonesia – one of the few that can afford to sponsor these events. Indonesian tobacco companies also sponsor free city tours and disaster relief after volcanic eruptions. They may be using every opportunity available to bombard the public with their advertising, but I’m not sure the fact that they’re sponsoring concerts along with everything else means they’re intentionally targeting young children.

By writing this post, I don’t mean to discount the fact that smoking is a problem in Indonesia and that the country could use more regulation when it comes to tobacco. Since the strongest, unfiltered, more “traditional” cigarettes are smoked largely by the oldest generation and educated young people seem not to smoke as much, I do think there’s hope for Indonesia to eventually follow in the footsteps of the US and European countries that have taken significant steps to combat the problem. But comparing my observations with what was presented in this documentary will definitely make me look at other journalistic works with a more critical eye.


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One Response to Smoking and sensationalism

  1. Andre says:

    Good writing on Indonesia. Thank you. I agree the documentary might be a little exaggerating. A lot of Indonesian DO smoke – myself included. There’s also lack of regulations, as you have pointed out. As for the tobacco companies targeting youths, you said “young people” and then you said “children”. Those are two different age groups. I agree they don’t target children, but they DO target teenagers and early 20’s. They wouldn’t be doing their duty to shareholders if they didn’t. The thing about Indonesians though, we are vulnerable to certain addictions but seem to be immune to others. For example, alcohol sale is about as free as tobacco in this country, and yet, I don’t think drinking is a problem (yet).

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