Smoking ad in Indonesia Condemned

Critics are reacting with outrage to an Indonesian billboard campaign by the tobacco company PT Sampoerna which, translated, says that “Dying is better than leaving a friend; Sampoerna is a cool friend.”

That is being interpreted as a statement that smokers would rather die than give up their cigarettes. And Indonesia is a country where indeed many do. An estimated 140 million of the country’s 245 million people smoke cigarettes, cigars and cheroots of varying scents and hues, puffing their way through some 225.5 billion cigarettes annually, a large percentage of them clove cigarettes known as kretek. It is the world’s fifth biggest tobacco market.

The industry is estimated to provide direct or indirect employment to seven million Indonesians. Tobacco tax revenues prop up the budget and are the biggest contributor to national coffers, with upwards of 90 percent of all excise revenue coming from tobacco. The companies that manufacture cigarettes, including PT Sampoerna, are also among the country’s most politically powerful.

“This is an irresponsible advertisement and the Philip Morris International (PMI)-owned company must be held accountable for its despicable lack of sensibility,” said the Bangkok-based Southeast Asia Tobacco Control Alliance in a prepared news release.

“It is very irresponsible to say such a horrible thing, especially as the aim is just to sell cigarettes,” said Bungon Ritthiphakdee, the director of the tobacco control alliance, which is seeking to cut cigarette smoking across the region. “First of all, it is ludicrous to call a hazardous product that kills half of its users a ‘friend’. It is simply despicable for PT Sampoerna to trash the Indonesian people in this manner. ”

The advertisement, Ritthiphakdee said, is clearly directed at young people. “About 12 percent of Indonesia’s youth aged 13-15 years, smoke cigarettes (boys at 24 percent and girls at 2 percent). Nearly 70 percent of smokers started smoking before the age of 19. Among the Asean countries, Indonesia has the largest number of smokers, 57 million. Every year more than 200,000 people die from smoking related diseases in Indonesia.”

The billboards apparently went up during the Muslim Ramadan fasting period, at a time when Muslims traditionally have smoked less.

“It appears PT Sampoerna has strange ideas about how Ramadan should be spent – with its cigarettes. This is an insult to the Muslims in Indonesia,” Ritthiphakdee said. “The Indonesian authorities should act immediately and bring down this offensive advertisement. And PT Sampoerna should apologize to the Indonesian people for the disrespect and callousness it has shown.”

Indonesia is the only country in Southeast Asia that still has not banned tobacco advertising, and has long evaded a global tobacco treaty adopted by the 191 member states of the World Health Organization (WHO). Officials say they are reluctant to sign the treaty, the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, because the cigarette industry boosts the agriculture and paper industries.

“As long as Indonesia allows tobacco advertising, this kind of irresponsibility from the tobacco companies will continue,” Ritthiphakdee said. “The Indonesian authorities should take this lesson seriously and ban all tobacco advertising and promotions.

The anti-smoking group estimated Philip Morris’s annual revenue at US$27 billion, of which U$7.3billion comes from Asia. Philip Morris International’s cigarette shipment volume in Asia increased by 24.8 percent, to about 282 billion units in 2010. Between 2009 and 2010 its profits from Asia increased more than 38 percent.

“While Indonesia is struggling to cure its sick and count its dead, PMI/PT Sampoerna’s profit in Indonesia is increasing and it has the largest market share of almost 30 percent. It sold 32 billion sticks of Sampoerna A cigarettes in 2010,” the anti-smoking group charged.

It said health care costs attributed to tobacco related illnesses amounts to Rp11 trillion each year (US$1.2 billion). Additionally, the annual healthcare costs in Indonesia for in-patient treatment of tobacco-attributable illnesses is US$319 million.