Sun, 28 Sep 2003

Selling death to teenagers is big business

Santi W.E. Soekanto and Nihayah Dahlan, Contributors, Jakarta

How do you kill close to 1,100 Indonesians a day? Dead easy. You don't even need a bomb -- use cigarettes.

How do you sell a poison that causes 5.5 million Indonesians on average to be very, very sick every year? That's easy too. You use beautiful people like boybands Padi and Gigi as well as singer Nugie to act as your "vendors" through a variety of advertisements. You use popular youth heroes like Iwan Fals, Reza and The Corrs, sponsoring their concerts so they -- unwittingly or otherwise -- deliver your message that it is cool to inhale your poisonous smoke and puff it down other people's throats.

You sell death by creating one- or two-liners that you think are witty -- "Bikin Hidup Lebih Hidup (Make Life Even More Lively) or Kalau Cinta Memang Buta, Buat Apa Ada Bikini? (If Love is Truly Blind, What are Bikinis for?) -- to convince youth that smoking makes them -- well -- witty.

You do it with great open spaces, mountains and lakes coming up to the shore. You do it with macho men riding their strong, beautiful horses on "the land that stretches forever".

You do it with healthy young people. You do it with athletes. How could a whiff of a cigarette be of any harm in a situation like that? It couldn't be -- too much fresh air, too much health -- too much absolute exuding of youth and vitality.

That is the way Indonesian tobacco firms, especially the three largest, sell death to Indonesian youth, who are barred from voting until they are 17 years old -- with the implication that that is the age at which they are able to make mature decisions -- but are allowed to start taking poison from as young as eight years of age.

Tobacco companies promote cigarettes through every conceivable medium, including television, magazines, newspapers, billboards, and now, of course, the Internet.

The companies also have in their arsenal a whole host of "indirect advertising" methods, including sponsoring sporting events and teams; promoting rock concerts and discos; placing their brand logos on T-shirts, backpacks and other merchandise popular with children; sponsoring adventure contests; and giving away free cigarettes and branded merchandise in areas where young people gather, such as rock concerts, discos and shopping malls.

The tobacco firms would certainly deny this -- they would claim that they are promoting sport and cultural development. They are supporting show business and the fashion industry. But they sell death, and their market is children and young people.

Each year, the world tobacco industry spends billions of dollars on advertising, marketing and promotion. In the United States alone, where less than 5 percent of the world's smokers live, tobacco companies spent over US$8.2 billion on advertising and promotion in 1999.

In Indonesia, which represents the world's fifth-largest consumer of tobacco, the commodity is the government's largest source of revenue after oil, gas and timber, projected to recoup Rp 27 trillion in excise this year. The industry is fiercely competitive, with each company fighting to win a greater share of Indonesia's growing market -- young people. Over 45 percent of Indonesians are under the age of 20.

"Advertising is having a very real impact on increasing the number of Indonesians who smoke -- especially those in younger age groups who are still very focused on their identity formation and are being targeted as key contributors to Indonesian tobacco companies' future profits," wrote Tobacco Control in 1999.

Advertising is a deeply cultural process; the "lifestyle attributes" tobacco companies and cigarette advertisers attempt to associate with a brand do not simply appear out of thin air. Each brand image is meticulously designed and crafted to connect with the prevailing popular cultural values and desires of the day.

As with many multinational advertising campaigns, strong images of masculinity and individuality are predominant themes in Indonesian cigarette advertisements. Most kretek clove cigarettes have been found to contain around four times as much nicotine and tar as the strongest Marlboros -- meaning they are four times as deadly. Gudang Garam then tells the public it is a macho thing to take that poison by selling its cigarettes as "kreteknya lelaki" -- men's cigarettes.

Which is exactly what Johny (not his real name), a 17-year-old high school student in East Jakarta, believes.

"I smoke 'filters' such as Gudang Garam because it feels light. Why do I smoke? Because I feel 'macho' and it makes me look cool," he said.

"Marwan," also 17, and in an East Jakarta high school, said: "I smoke A Mild because it puffs light, tasty, and classy ... I do change brands sometimes, but if I really had to I could smoke anything if I were desperate."

"I want to look cool, gaul (trendy). Smoking is a habit of so many people -- it's no big deal," Marwan added. He smokes up to six cigarettes a day, purchasing them with his pocket money or bumming them from friends.

"Why did I start smoking? Because my dad smokes, and all my friends do. We hang around after school, so of course we smoke."

"Yes, I know there are negative things associated with smoking. Nowadays I get tired easily and often experience shortness of breath when doing physical exercise, but what can I do? I can't stop smoking."

Sandi, a 15-year-old, third-year student at a junior high school in East Jakarta, says he started smoking when he was still in the first year.

"Why do I smoke? Because all my friends do. I couldn't be cool if I didn't smoke, right?" he says. "Smoking is really cool, it makes you feel as though you don't give a damn about the rest of the world, and it makes me feel proud because I'm doing something that other people are doing."

Vera, 17, a student in Bekasi, said she started because she wanted to know what it felt like to smoke. "I found out that I liked it. My friends smoke, so I smoke too."

"To be honest, it doesn't even taste good: Bitter. It causes my throat to itch but I still enjoy it. I know it's not good, especially for girls; I realize this and I've promised myself to stop one day but I don't know when. You know I can't do it now."

"I'm scared that I might have cancer, especially as I have started to cough these days ... please God, not now."