Health Minister Says Tobacco Rules Not Enough
Dessy Sagita & Markus Junianto Sihaloho
Health Minister Nafsiah Mboi has acknowledged that a tobacco control regulation signed into law by the president last week and promptly criticized by public health activists falls short on key points.
She said over the weekend that the regulation did not go far enough to clamp down on tobacco advertising and sales, calling it “a huge sin” if cigarette ads and promotions were allowed to proliferate in their current form and frequency.
“To be honest, I don’t feel that [the regulation] is fierce enough,” she said at a press conference with Agriculture Minister Suswono and Agung Laksono, the coordinating minister for people’s welfare.
She said that what she was particularly disappointed with was a provision allowing outdoor advertising billboards for tobacco products to be as big as 72 square meters, one of the largest sizes available.
Nafsiah also took issue with the fact that the regulation did not go into force immediately, but would be eased in over an 18-month period.
“That’s a decision that was reached by consensus among the various stakeholders. This issue was discussed at great length among the 18 institutions and ministries involved,” she said.
Another point that critics have lamented is a provision allowing tobacco companies to keep sponsoring events such as sports matches and musical concerts. Unlike at the present, however, they will not be allowed to hand out free cigarettes or display any of their product branding.
“Smoking addiction rates continue to rise, and a large part of this is a result of advertising, promotions, sponsorships and free cigarette handouts,” Nafsiah said.
“[Promoting smoking] is a huge sin. Are we really willing to kill our own children?” she added.
The tobacco control regulation was signed last Tuesday by President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, but immediately came under question by public health activists.
One of the shortcomings that they highlighted was the absence of a ban on selling cigarettes by the stick — a practice that activists have long blamed for enabling minors and poor people to take up and continue smoking. Such a ban was provided for in an earlier draft of the regulation, but was cut out of the final version.
Tobacco lobby disappointed
Despite all these concessions to the tobacco lobby, however, the latter have threatened to seek a judicial review to have it struck down.
The Coalition of Clove Cigarette Saviors (KNPK) announced a day after the signing that the regulation heralded “the death of the national tobacco industry and the rise of foreign interests in Indonesia.”
Nurtantio Wisnu Brata, chairman of the Tobacco Farmers Alliance (APTI), one of the groups in the KNPK, said last week that the coalition would soon challenge the regulation at the Supreme Court on the grounds that the government was taking an unfair stance against tobacco farmers.
The coalition has threatened to mobilize thousands of farmers nationwide to boycott the 2014 elections and not pay taxes until the regulation is repealed.
However, Suswono said there would be little to no impact on Indonesian tobacco farmers as a result of the new regulation taking effect.
He argued that domestically produced tobacco comprised just a small portion of the total tobacco consumed in the country, and that while imports of the leaf might fall, there would always be demand for domestic supplies.
Agung also tried to allay opposition to the regulation, saying that it did not prohibit the growing or smoking of tobacco.
“Don’t forget that in order for this regulation to have passed, there were intense discussions between the various stakeholders, including the cigarette companies and tobacco producers,” he added.
“So there’s no need for them now to make threats.”
Politicians have also echoed the farmers’ suspicions about the motive behind the regulation.
The Golkar Party’s Poempida Hidayatulloh said it was understandable why the farmers were angry about the new restrictions given that other addictive substances, such as alcoholic or caffeinated drinks, were not being scrutinized as closely.
“If the government only focuses on the cigarette industry, then we have to question the motive for passing this regulation,” he said.
He added that despite the government’s reassurances that the regulation would not impact local farmers, the Health Ministry had failed to propose any measures to address the possibility of a loss of livelihood among tobacco growers.
“For instance, what programs do they have in place for tobacco farmers?” said Poempida, a member of House of Representatives Commission IX, which oversees health affairs.
Despite its shortcomings, the regulation still manages to impose significant restrictions on cigarette producers.
The key provision is for a mandatory graphic warning covering 40 percent of the front and back of cigarette packs.
The side panels will carry a written warning stating that cigarettes contain more than 4,000 dangerous chemicals and 43 carcinogens, and another one noting that there is no safe level for tobacco use.
Producers will also no longer be able to use the words “light/mild,” “ultra light/mild,” “low tar,” “slim,” “special,” “full flavor,” “premium” or any variant of those terms for any of their products.
Another advertising restriction will bar companies from portraying children, teenagers or pregnant women in their ads. The ads should also not glamorize smoking or encourage people to take up the habit.
The regulation will require cigarette ads on television to devote 10 percent of their running time to written warnings and a pictorial warning. Ads on the radio would have to devote 10 percent of their duration to verbal warnings, while still-image ads would be required to devote 10 percent of their area for a warning.
The regulation also stipulates specific prohibitions for cigarette ads in print media. One of them is that these ads may never be published on the front or back cover of a print publication or near ads for food and drink products. Cigarette companies are also barred from taking out a full-page ad in any print publication.
Restrictions on outdoor media advertising include a prohibition on tobacco ads being displayed in smoke-free zones or along main roads.
The restrictions, however, will not apply to small-scale tobacco companies, defined as those that produce fewer than 24 million cigarettes a year.
Throughout the process of drawing up the regulation, the government has faced staunch opposition from the cigarette lobby, in particular tobacco farmers who argue that their livelihoods are at stake.
Yudhoyono has insisted that the tobacco control regulation is necessary to protect public health, but also vowed to find a middle ground to protect the farmers.
More than 237,000 people work in the country’s tobacco industry, producing around 190 billion cigarettes a year, according to data from the World Health Organization. Indonesia is the only country in the Asia-Pacific region that has not signed the WHO’s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control.