Smoking: A growing crisis among Indonesia’s Youth

Updated: Apr 1, 2021

In a perfect world, it would be highly odd and perhaps even confusing, if you see a 5-year-old smoking a pack of cigarettes every day, even before he can speak properly. Our beautifully conditioned mind would not even consider this as a possibility and rightly so. ‘Who, in their right mind, would let a five- year- old smoke, let alone near a cigarette?’ As bizarre as it may sound, this is the reality of millions of Indonesian children, who learn how to light a cigarette, even before they learn to write their alphabets. In more rural parts of the country, if you’d ask a child what his hobbies were, football and smoking cigarettes would be among the top two. This epidemic that has engulfed Indonesia, is not just sheer neglect on the part of the parents but is also fuelled by some of the biggest cigarette companies in the world.

Indonesia, with the fourth largest population in the world, is one of the largest cigarette market, second to China. Tobacco has been one of Indonesia’s largest industry for decades and contributes to nearly 95% of the state's excise total. According to Bloomberg, the country seeks to earn $12 million in state revenue in the year 2021, which is 5% higher than in 2020. In 2016 alone the country produced about 340 million cigarettes. This island nation produces tobacco for the largest tobacco giants. With the tobacco industry pumping millions of dollars in a developing nation, the government’s will to regulate the tobacco market is highly questionable.

While the parliament has chosen to value the national revenue more than public health, tobacco giants across the world have not spared the chance of exploiting the laws and entering the country to make millions. There is an uncanny resemblance between colonialism in India a century ago and the crisis that Indonesia faces today.

child smoking beside mother breastfeeding an infant
A child smokes on as his infant brother is breastfed.

Young, naïve minds and not the most sought-after advertisements, are not the ideal combination but it makes for a fool-proof recipe for cigarette companies to cash billions. Local cigarettes can cost as less as 6 Indian rupees and with no supervision, children have easy access to them. The habit of smoking is not the only issue at hand; hundreds of children become prone to acute nicotine poisoning as a result of working at tobacco farms. The International Labour Organization (ILO) estimates that more than 1.5 million children, ages 10 to 17, work in agriculture in Indonesia. Statistics show that children leave school before 15 years of age (minimum compulsory schooling age in Indonesia) in order to support their families. With very little to live on and tobacco harvesting being one of the largest sources of income, , labour laws and health issues lose their meaning in the more rural parts of the country and the dominant human needs of money and food, take the primary position. In the simplest economic sense, when the income of people working on tobacco farms is barely sufficient to meet their daily needs, expenditure on cigarettes, that too by young children, crowds out the income available for other needs of the family.

In such situations, policymakers often find themselves struggling to impose regulations. For Indonesia, these tobacco companies mean high revenue and are the nation’s most important sector, just like finance is for the United States or Agriculture in India. The Indonesian cigarette market is dominated by 5 major players, a mini cartel if you’d please, with HM Sampoerna being the biggest player with a 92.5% share owned by Phillips Morris International, the makers of the infamous Marlboro cigarettes, commanding a whopping 29% market share. A substantial market share is also owned by top Indonesian conglomerates like Gudang Garam, famous for kerek or clove cigarettes. These companies not only command power over the tobacco industry in Indonesia but also yield significant political power and connections as well (refer to the pie chart below). With financial power in one hand and ties with top offices of a developing country, these companies are a force to reckon with. While they claim to promote mindful smoking practices and deny resorting to any unlawful practices, statistics do not seem to support this claim.

An array of organisations is committed to educate children and parents in urban and more importantly the rural regions of the island country but quitting is difficult, especially when a 5-year-old child is smoking two packs a day. The withdrawal symptoms set in, in an incorrigible way. Smoking in Indonesia is an environmentally and culturally internalised habit, a child growing up in Indonesia, would have, seen at least one member smoking in their family. Young boys claim that they aren’t “manly” enough if they don’t smoke. Smoking has been glorified by unregulated advertisements that reinforce the idea that smoking makes them more ‘masculine’, and when young children see their ideal figures smoke, they are more likely to replicate them.

In economics, we define a negative externality as the harmful consequence or cost experienced by a third party when an economic transaction takes place but no payment is received for the harm. Such activities are not included in the calculation of a nation’s GDP and often lead to overestimating the GDP. The Indonesian tobacco production and the subsequent smoking crisis is a negative externality. While tobacco giants pump in huge money and contribute significantly to the nation’s national income, their social costs outweigh the private costs. Environmental degradation, pollution of rivers, air pollution from the smoke at the factories and most importantly the health problems inflicted upon young children, makes a person stop and think. With headaches and nausea, trembling of the hands and feet, decreased heart rates and increasing weight, with an intense craving for more nicotine, there is a subsequent effect on school work and education. Quitting is not a simple feat and added to this is the association of cigarettes with masculinity. When respiratory problems touch an all-time high and each cigarette takes away 10 years from a young child’s life, (who himself hasn’t reached 10 years of age), the gravity of the problem sets in.

A striking model, that Indonesia can look up to is Australia. Discounting the fact that the country is classified as a developed one, their tobacco related regulations, seem to lower the numbers for the them. With plain packaging and health warnings, one would not be able to see a striking image or unnecessary colour or the cigarette packet. The human brain is fickle and targeting the right psychology to make a point works wonders. Unlike in other countries where smoking is fancied upon, Australia’s approach has been efficient in reducing the tobacco products appeal, removing misinformation from the packets and most importantly keeping it simple. It is completely illegal to promote, publish and broadcast messages that encourage people to smoke. Such practices help appeal to the people on a sub conscious level, leading to chain smokers not associating any adjective that helps to glorify the vice that smoking is. When such practices make home, it is much easier to fight the war against smoking. The way companies have monopolised the broadcasting on television strategically contributes and creates a perspective that feeds the minds of young people and makes them believe that smoking can provide them with the lifestyle of the rich and it is something that the daring men do.

With more than 60 million smokers, and more than 97 million people exposed to second hand smoking, the country has still not ratified the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC). While there is no denying the fact, that the country cannot stop tobacco production and risk the livelihoods of millions, it still does not serve as an excuse to inflict tobacco related social, economic, environmental and health risks on young children. It’s time the policymakers acknowledge the problem that is on the brink of becoming an epidemic for the country and enforce as well as regulate tobacco production and sales. Law No.36 of 2009 Concerning Health and Government Regulation No. 109 of 2012 are the two primary laws that regulate the tobacco industry. Children should be taught about the ill-effects of smoking in schools, local cigarette prices should be regulated so that the access to cigarettes is not as easy it is today. This problem is deep rooted in the minds of the Indonesian people and has been passed to young generations. The process of unlearning has to start before the problem escalates beyond the government's control. While the rich will continue to command power as long as they have money, it does not give the governments an easy pass to turn a blind eye to a problem that threatens a major part of the population.





3. Nawi Ng, L. Weinehall, A. Öhman, ‘If I don’t smoke, I'm not a real man'—Indonesian teenage boys' views about smoking, Health Education Research, Volume 22, Issue 6, December 2007, Pages 794–804,

4. Indonesia's Tobacco Children | Unreported World

Image source: Tobacco free kids,, Pinterest.

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