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Jakarta Post

Tobacco bill, panacea for tobacco growers?

  • Omar Pidani and Fitrilailah Mokui

    The Jakarta Post

Canberra   /   Sat, January 16, 2016   /  04:05 pm

A researcher once joked that cigarettes are the only commodity which is as divisive as the last presidential campaign. The World Health Organization estimates that Indonesia has approximately 72 million people aged over 15 who smoke any kind of tobacco product on a daily or occasional basis. This means the country has one of the highest levels of smoking prevalence in the world.

Tobacco has been available in Indonesia since the 16th century, but was known as a pharmacological agent as early as 5,000 BC. Johannes Wilbert, an American anthropologist, studied the use of tobacco among 280 South American tribes from the ancient region of Abipon to Zaparo where shamans used the hallucinogenic effects of nicotine of plants for healing.

Last year, the debate about cigarettes heated up again, triggered by the drafting of the tobacco bill. Opponents of the bill argued that it went against policies on tobacco production and consumption.

These include Government Regulation No. 109/2012 on addictive materials from tobacco. Opponents also suspected that the drafting and listing of the bill on the national legislation program was heavily influenced by the tobacco lobby.

The controversial term '€œkretek as a socio-cultural heritage'€ in the bill is considered a loophole that could allow the industry to maintain its marketing. Creating an image of aromatic tobacco and clove blended traditional cigarettes produced using modern technology is certainly a clever strategy.

The industry knows that smoking is still deeply ingrained in local cultures. Cigarettes often possess symbolic value and meaning often inseparable from traditions and rituals that bond people together through moral reciprocation.

Our year-long ethnography revealed that in Bombana in Southeast Sulawesi where indigenous Moronene settled, people bestowed special value and meaning to cigarettes termed pokompolulu (pathway opening).

Among some Buginese ethnic groups in South Sulawesi, tobacco in its modern form replaced tobacco wrapped in corn leaves and served with nuts and betel. Tobacco symbolizes the host'€™s willingness to accept requests for conflict resolution or favors. For some Dayak tribes in Kalimantan and the Togutil tribe in Halmahera, Maluku, tobacco is also embedded in many rituals and social interaction.

The cigarette industry also understands that smoking is a feature of social relations and an act to convey identity '€” as the industry itself has intensively instilled these ideas into our mindset. Studies led by Nawi Ng of Gadjah Mada University in Central Java'€™s urban and rural areas among adolescent smokers revealed that this habit is shaped by daily interaction, picked up through peer introduction and pressure and intended to display masculine identity, adulthood transition, bravery and independence.

Therefore the phrase '€œkretek as a socio-cultural heritage'€ is indeed justifiable. However, to say that smoking is the essence of social interaction and culture of the whole nation is naïve and simplistic.

Proponents of the bill including the Institute for the Development of Economics and Finance (Indef) argue that the tobacco bill might help protect hundreds of thousands of tobacco farmers.

Around 500,000 tobacco farmers and families rely on tobacco cultivation, quite apart from workers in 672 tobacco enterprises producing 3,300 brands. There were 281,571 tobacco workers in 2012, a sharp decline from 346,042 in 2008.

Indef proposes that the bill can safeguard these farmers and workers from imported tobacco, which has not been clearly regulated. Therefore tobacco from domestic and foreign sources could be subjected to different tax and levy systems.

Farmers might benefit from such a structured taxation system because brands using locally produced tobacco would have a competitive advantage in pricing. The bill is also needed, its advocates say, because there is no guarantee that domestic production can always meet domestic demand.

But whether farmers will be better off is not that simple. Market structure, intermediaries, farmers'€™ know-how, and quality of tobacco leaves, affect farmers'€™ prices. Excessive rain usually lowers quality and value of the leaves.

Then when the government starts to increase the taxes to companies that outsource tobacco from foreign sources, the companies will also increase the price, and smokers share the burden of the hike. Studies have also shown that poorer smokers bear a larger burden compared to rich smokers in such situations.

While this year'€™s target of tobacco excise revenue is over Rp 148.85 trillion (US$10.78 billion), health costs from treating in-patients with major smoke-related diseases as reported in a 2013 study were already estimated at an annual Rp 39.5 trillion.

The state will not bear all the consequences of widespread smoking habits while an estimated average of 200,000 people die annually from smoking-related diseases, as cited by last year'€™s Global Adult Tobacco Survey.

Most of this excise money was perhaps spent on operational cars and anti- smoking posters, instead of subsidizing the costs of smoking '€” at least as indicated during our one year fieldwork.

The gap of revenue and health costs reflects the burden that society, particularly the poor who suffer from smoke-related diseases, must bear. Consider studies on paternal smoking in Indonesia'€™s rural and urban slum families by Richard D. Semba from Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, US, over the last decade. These studies mostly analyzed data sets from the National Surveillance Survey.

Semba found that in familes whose fathers were smokers, children paid the price in lower-quality food and malnutrition, contributing to death among infants under five years old, stunting and food insecurity. The reason: the comparatively high household spending on cigarettes and treatment for smoke-related diseases. Such evidence seems to be missing from debates on the tobacco bill.

Passing this tobacco bill would boost the government'€™s and lawmakers'€™ image of being serious in dealing with smoking and perhaps boost income from excise.

One may say that the bill'€™s aims evoke nationalism with its inclusion of kretek as an item of social and cultural heritage, but it is really an effort to safeguard the interests of the tobacco industry in exploiting Indonesia'€™s large number of smokers.

The argument that this bill aims to protect the wellbeing of tobacco farmers is far from reality. In fact, it could sustain poverty and limit the potential of future generations as a result of smoking, as smoking itself is a systemic agent of impoverishment of oneself and one'€™s family.

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Omar Pidani is studying for his Phd in political economy at the Department of Anthropology, College of Asia and the Pacific, Australian National University in Canberra. Fitrilailah Mokui is also undertaking a Phd in medical anthropology at the same department.

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