Wed, 19 Apr 2000

Cigarette companies need to come clean on ills of smoking

By Michael Kibaara Muchiri

YOGYAKARTA (JP): Someone at the Ministry of Health is taking home a paycheck he should not get. Some people at the main private television channels are drawing money that they have not earned.

Just sample the succession of images: A hotel attendant is delivering an order from a customer. She presses the doorbell. The affluent guest, who has been soaking himself in a bathtub, slides majestically to answer the door. He opens the door but it is not clear who is mesmerized. As he forcefully seizes the "order" from the waitress and proceeds to walk away, lo and behold, it turns out he is naked! The voice-over pronounces: "Bentoel Mild. Jangan anggap enteng (Don't underestimate it)."

Or this one: An advert priding its product as the pick of the plants used in its manufacture -- it specifically notes North America and Latin America -- and argues that it is using the egg's principle in making the product protective for consumers! "A Mild" way of advertising a product that has been associated with cancer and a host of heart and lung complications!

And this one now playing on a small screen near you: A driver is caught between a shower and a herd of cattle. He first uses an umbrella as he helps move the cows off the road, and the message goes a tad fuzzy. If it were not for the announcement about Dji Sam Soe, one would be lost as to whether it is a ranchers' advertisement rather than one for cigarettes. Once again, no follow-up health whistle blowing is evident in the Dji Sam Soe or other Sampoerna cigarette adverts.

Then the big boys take over, or could we say the horses ride off with the show? Against a background of country music, the advertiser not only ignores the Asian lack of passion for ponies, he boldly announces that his heroes are/were/will always be cowboys. Let us give them credit. One of those Marlboro adverts may show the best cinematography of any ad; the serenity captured as the cowboy waters his horse. It is breathtakingly cool. The only dent, of course, is the phony attempt to show some dangers of cigarette smoking.

Why is the advert shy of a clear, lengthy warning that follows all cigarette print ads? In the current Time magazine, Marlboro's advertisement carries the boxed message: U.S. Surgeon General's Warning: Quitting Smoking Now Greatly Reduces Serious Risks to Your Health.


When most countries are moving beyond irresponsible advertising, it is ironic that Indonesia's airwaves are becoming a haven for the ads.

Nowhere in the West would these tobacco crusaders get off scot-free with such despicable advertising. It is tiresome to watch irresponsible advertisements aired on the TV, even if they are placed behind a tasteful smokescreen.

Initially you get lost in the vagueness that is emphasized in these tobacco adverts. What a shame it is that this is happening in the 21st century! How unfortunate that big multinational companies largely support it!

The most astonishing thing, of course, is the conspicuous absence of any health cautions against the risks associated with cigarette smoking. No mandatory health ministry health warning on the perils of smoking. Nothing.

And when some deign to include the health warning, it is normally a flicker of a second, totally "toothless" compared to the backdrop of lengthy, elaborate prosmoking statements. Unless you are searching for it, the warning either never comes or is obscured by its brevity.

That split-second "warning" is all that we are supposed to make out of the efforts of the public watchdogs. It is so contemptuously set; it is totally devoid of any deterrent by telling of the true health ramifications that smokers must contend with. As it is now, those subdued warnings are akin to rubber-stamping a deal for marauding foxes to enter the chicken coop.

It is a mockery when the "warning" is there in the first place. The oh-so brief warning -- catch it if you can -- may seem irrelevant until someone out there dies because the public's watchdogs did not insist on each smoking ad carrying a clear lengthy warning. The tobacco companies keep hoping that Indonesians will not develop the consciousness to sue them, as is happening now in the West.

The responsible public watchdog must come out in the open and declare what -- or who -- is keeping them mum. In fact, such officers of the government merit reprimands from their superiors, if not a cut in pay.

Be it as it may, tobacco adverts have gone to bizarre lengths in a bid to reach consumers. Why? Why are they no longer trying straight smoking on the television screen? Is it because they know that unless they dupe their consumers, smoking would already be a dead and buried industry?

The reality is that few cigarette adverts today make the direct sell. They are torn between lying for the money and putting on a health warning. Yet, whenever it appears, the advertiser makes sure it is as brief as can be. Apparently, the idea is to dupe the public that the health warning should not be taken seriously. Sometimes, the warning appears detached from the preceding advertisement as if to give the impression they are unrelated.

No education

It is only fair that tobacco consumers know the risk that they are putting themselves at and, by extension, the environment around them. It is fair for kids to make cigarette-smoking decisions if they have full awareness of the hazards that are involved. As it is now, the cigarette industry is not providing the education.

Smoking may be a choice that adults may make. Yet no one should have the freedom to smoke in public places like on the bus, in malls, classrooms, lecture halls or dormitories. Civil servants should never be allowed to smoke in their places of work. To allow unrestricted smoking would be to cause an upsurge in involuntary smoking, where nonsmokers are exposed to tobacco combustion products from the smoking of others.

While tobacco smoke in the environment comes through both the mainstream (direct smoking) and sidestream (from the burning end of a cigarette) sources, the active smoker is exposed to both sources; the passive smoker's risk is lower. The vagueness in adverts may motivate mainstream smokers to smoke more, but it is a pity that the sidestream smoking renders us all vulnerable to the perils that go with cigarette smoke.

So why are the public watchdogs all acting as if their hands are tied? Why are they not pushing for tighter antismoking laws, especially concerning public transportation vehicles, public offices and recreational places like theaters and even discotheques? Why are they watching helplessly as the health of the nation goes to ruin?

The hope is that it is not one of those International Monetary Fund or World Bank preconditions given in exchange for aid and international investor attractions. If it is, then those two Breton Woods institutions should start worrying about who will pay back their loans because a sick nation cannot pay any debts.

Not only is tobacco smoke listed as the number-one contributor to indoor air pollution (Veitch, R & D. Arkkelin, Environmental Psychology), it has been shown to be related to cancer, cardiovascular disease, chronic obtrusive lung disease and chronic lung disease in the work place. What the tobacco companies will never tell the unknowing public is that smoke from a burning cigarette contains tar and about 4,720 compounds! Cigarette smoking is reported to have a hand in or is a major cause of lung, laryngeal, esophageal, bladder, kidney, pancreatic, stomach and uterine-cervix cancers.

Indonesia, now a target of major tobacco multinationals, needs to have comprehensive and elaborate cigarette smoking laws that will protect innocent and ignorant passive smokers like babies, nonsmoking women and men, as well as rid the public of this malaise. Most notorious, of course, are the school kids and adults who puff away on packed city buses. There must be a law that can stop bus occupants, including drivers, from smoking until they reach designated smoking-friendly zones.

According to the article Reform and the Cigarette industry by H.W. Vriens in this newspaper on March 24, 2000, the director general of the Ministry of Health estimated the cost of treating smoking-related diseases in 1999 was four times as high as the taxes the cigarette companies contributed to the state coffers. The same article estimated that three of the top five causes of death in Indonesia were related to smoking-childbirth complications, heart disease and influenza/pneumonia. The report put an average of 57,000 deaths a year in Indonesia which were attributable to smoking.

Health warnings should be mandatory wherever a tobacco company advertises -- the towering roadside billboards, the mass media, off-road competitions and even every time a tobacco company sponsors events like live coverage of soccer and boxing (in the case of Djarum Super and Mustang).

As the curtains finally closes in on tobacco companies in the industrialized world, the hope is that the dumping ground that the developing world has turned out to be will still be able to ward off this malaise.

Health benefits of quitting smoking overshadow the profits from the industry. This role has to be emphasized by these multinationals so that fairness is done and seen to be done. The government should move in swiftly and enforce applicable laws that protect consumers from unethical practices that would not be allowed elsewhere on this planet.