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Tobacco Bill Lights Up Advocates in 2017

The resurrection of a controversial tobacco bill has escalated the battle between pro-tobacco lobbyists and anti-tobacco activists in 2017.

Parliament aims to pass the bill into law this year and President Joko ‘Jokowi’ Widodo is set to announce his stance on the issue by appointing one ministry as the leader of the discussion on the bill.

The bill has drawn controversy since its inception in 2012 as it is radically different from the 2010 tobacco control bill.

The bill was initially proposed by the House of Representatives’ Health Committee to set up tighter regulations for tobacco after a video of a smoking toddler in the country went viral. However, anti-tobacco stakeholders argue that the bill was submitted by the House’s Industrial Committee instead to promote the tobacco industry (the opposite of what was suggested in the beginning).

Subsequently, the bill was deemed by anti-tobacco activists to in fact protect the interest of the tobacco industry in Indonesia by annulling several key articles put forth by regulators. The bill would allow the industry to advertise and promote its products, but also omit the pictorial health warnings on cigarette packages in Indonesia.

A quick look at the bill will show that the provisions are dominated by legal language regarding tobacco production and the tobacco industry. Critics claim that health issues are in no way at the core of the bill, with only a minor provision on the protection of public health.

The National Commission on Tobacco Control (Komnas PT) said that the bill was deeply problematic, as it contradicted various laws and regulations on health in Indonesia.

“The bill should have been consistent with the Law on Health, which states that tobacco is an addictive and deadly substance,” Komnas PT legal and advocacy department member Muhamad Joni told Indonesia Expat.

“How can a dangerous, addictive and carcinogenic substance like tobacco be allowed to be promoted?”

The bill is said to contradict efforts by Indonesia to protect the public from the dangers of tobacco at large. The country is already way behind other nations when it comes to tobacco control. What is more, tobacco stands as one of the largest and most important economic pillars of the country. Indonesia is the only country in the Asia Pacific that has yet to ratify the international Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC).

“Most countries in the world have agreed on FCTC, which stands as the single most powerful instrument to protect public health. Full implementation of FCTC will be the single best preventive law,” said Jihane Tawilah, World Health Organization representative to Indonesia.

Jokowi has asserted that he would not ratify the convention just to follow a trend. He added that the government would look at all perspectives, including health risks, the future of Indonesian youth, the livelihoods of tobacco farmers and those of workers involved in cigarette manufacturing before making a final decision.

Indonesia’s unwillingness to sign the FCTC has resulted in loose cigarette control in general. As a result, more than two-thirds of adult males are smokers in Indonesia and nearly 4 million children between the ages of ten and 14 pick up smoking every year, leading to around 200,000 deaths from tobacco-related illnesses annually.

For citizens, the economic losses caused by smoking, including medical expenses, physical disability, premature death and reduced working hours, meanwhile reach US$18 billion every year.

The health ministry’s disease control director-general Muhammad Subuh said that the health cost from cigarette-related diseases was five times more than the tax income from the tobacco industry. Because of this, he questioned the logic behind the House’s decision to include the tobacco bill in the priority list for 2017. The health ministry has unsurprisingly rejected the bill.

Mukhamad Misbakhun, a member of the working committee on the tobacco bill, said the rejection from the health ministry did not matter, as it was likely that it would not be appointed by the president to lead the discussion of the bill in the House of Representatives.

He said that the bill mostly regulated the tobacco industry and the welfare of tobacco farmers in the country, and thus it should either be the agriculture ministry or the industry ministry that should lead the bill’s discussion.

Lily Sulistyowati, the health ministry’s director of non-communicable diseases, believes that appointing the agriculture ministry to lead the discussion would be a huge mistake, as the bill would likely be passed into law.

Misbakhun criticized the health ministry’s stance, saying it only represented the anti-tobacco camp. Instead, the ministry should take into consideration all perspectives, including those whose livelihoods depend on the tobacco industry.

“Don’t let the health ministry and the health minister force their wills to build opinions that threaten people who live and fight to stay alive [by working in] the tobacco industry,” he said.

Misbakhun further urged the health ministry to be wise in deciding its stance on the tobacco bill, as he claimed that the ministry’s budget came from tax income from the tobacco industry. Another politician who proposed the bill, Teuku Taufiqulhadi, said there would be many consequences if the government rejected the bill. This could include the decline of state revenue from the tobacco industry and the increase in tobacco imports, which ultimately could lead to the demise of local tobacco farmers.

“The welfare of the country’s tobacco farmers will worsen,” he added. “Banning the discussion of the tobacco bill will lead to a legal void on tobacco farmers’ protection. [So] it has to be regulated.”

However, as for concerns about public health impacts from smoking, Taufiqulhadi said that there should be regulations to control cigarettes.

Indonesian Consumers Foundation Chairman Tulus Abadi believes that the reasoning behind the bill, which is to protect tobacco formers, is unfounded. Abadi says the real enemy of tobacco farmers is the tobacco industry itself, as mechanization of cigarette production has driven small farmers out of business in Indonesia for years.

“How can the tobacco bill protect tobacco farmers when the bill was designed by the tobacco industry?” he said. “The tobacco bill is a cunning way for the tobacco industry to increase its production to at least 500 billion cigarettes every year. The ones who will fall victims as new smokers are children.”

Currently, Indonesians smoke 300 billion cigarettes in a year. Only China and India exceed this number.

With increasing tobacco production and consumption, poor Indonesians will become even poorer, Abadi said. A survey conducted in low-income populations showed that cigarettes come second after the staple food product rice on the list of household monthly consumables.

“Poverty will escalate as it is proven that cigarette consumption has impoverished the people of Indonesia, according to the Central Statistics Agency,” Abadi added.

Ultimately, the tobacco bill would further loosen the already weak tobacco control laws in Indonesia, a country which has been dubbed as the tobacco industry’s playground.

“The tobacco bill is a very embarrassing catastrophe in terms of international relations because when 90 percent of countries in the world have seriously reduced and controlled cigarette consumption, Indonesia wants to push for a regulation that is the other way around,” Abadi concluded.

Featured Image via Chris Vaughan

 

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Heru Nainggolan is a Jakarta-based freelance writer and journalist that's been covering a variety of issues since 2011.