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Smokers' Rights Advocates Resist Tobacco Regulation in Indonesia

FILE - Workers hand roll Kretek, or clove cigarettes, widely popular in the country at a factory in Kudus, Central Java province, Indonesia, March 17, 2016 in this photo taken by Antara Foto.

If you smoke in Indonesia — and chances are high that you do, as the country is on track to have the world’s highest smoking rate within the next decade — you’re likely a fan of kreteks, the clove cigarettes that are omnipresent in the island nation. Named after the crackling sound that cloves make as you smoke them, kreteks account for as much as 90 percent of all cigarette consumption in Indonesia.

They were invented in the 19th century, are reputed to have medicinal properties, and are deeply embedded in local culture. A smokers’ rights advocacy group based in Java called Komunitas Kretek, or Kretek Community, uses this premise to oppose anti-tobacco legislation on cultural grounds. Their arguments illuminate the difficulties of public health efforts to curb smoking in Indonesia.

'Kreteks are part of our society'

Kretek Community was created in 2010 in Jember, East Java by Aditia Purnomo, an entrepreneur raised in the Jakarta suburbs, who started smoking in high school. Their tagline is “kretek bukan rokok,” or "kreteks are not cigarettes." There are about 200 active members, Purnomo told VOA, but it’s largely an informal group that works in seven provinces today. They campaign on social media, host discussion groups, and lobby cafes that ban smoking to change their rules. (Smoking is often permitted in Indonesian public spaces, but some higher-end restaurants and cafes, and malls, have banned on-site smoking in recent years.)

On social media, they post around campaigns like #harikretek2016, or “Kretek Day 2016,” circulating content like a photo of the first Indonesian president Sukarno smoking kreteks. One blog on their website argues that kreteks are less addictive than cigarettes because of the ease with which people give them up for the fasting month of Ramadan.

Komunitas Kretek members in Jakarta hold up letters that say "Thank you tobacco."
Komunitas Kretek members in Jakarta hold up letters that say "Thank you tobacco."

Kreteks contain nicotine and there is no evidence that they are less addictive than unflavored cigarettes. In fact, the nicotine content of cigarettes sold in developing countries can be “three to six times higher than those in developed regions,” according to Fadjar Wibowo, a doctor and tobacco control advocate at the Center for Indonesia's Strategic Development Initiative.

But “every consumer good has a risk factor for certain diseases,” said Aditia. “Kreteks are a part of people’s lives here,” he told VOA. “It is present in our society’s customs, from communal slametan feasts to weddings.”

A public health challenge

Kreteks take the form of both hand-rolled clove cigarettes and kretek-flavored or clove-infused pre-packaged cigarettes from companies like Djarum and Avolution.

An estimated 70 million out of 260 million Indonesians smoke, the fourth highest prevalence in the world. Compared to the countries that currently surpass it — China, Russia, and the United States — Indonesia has many fewer regulations in place. China, for instance, signed the World Health Organization’s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control in 2006. Indonesia has long refused to do the same.

“To ratify, it is late already; administratively impossible,” said Fadjar. “Out of 192 countries we are among the very few who have not signed it.”

As it stands, a bill proposed last month could even open the floodgates for tobacco advertising aimed at kids and teens.

In 2010, Indonesia’s two-year-old “smoking baby” became a YouTube sensation for his two-pack-a-day habit. As sensational as that video was, the boy, Aldi Rizal, was a potent symbol of how pervasive smoking is across Indonesia. (Aldi, the Sydney Morning Herald recently reported, has since quit the habit.)

It is estimated that there are 200,000 tobacco-related deaths in Indonesia every year.

Kretek Community is not alone in channeling a sentimental attachment to clove cigarettes. In 2014, a film called "Those Who Surpass Time" was made, with an accompanying book, to document elderly Indonesian smokers across Java, Bali, and Lombok who were still supposedly healthy despite a lifelong kretek habit.

The cultural aspects of kreteks can end up as powerful ammunition for the tobacco industry, said Fadjar. "Including kretek in our 'history' constitutes subliminal advertising, by which advertisers wish to influence the emotion-based decision-making process of youth," he said.

So even if political will consolidates around fighting tobacco, they will have to seriously account for the country’s smoking culture. As Aditia says, more than a few Indonesians’ lives revolve around kreteks. “Living from kretek, by kretek, and for kretek.”