INDONESIA’s President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo this week rejected a draft law that if approved could have led to a sharp increase in tobacco output, putting himself on a collision course with major players in one of the country’s oldest industries.
The bold move by the president has been lauded by tobacco control lobbyists and regarded as a step in the right direction for Indonesia, a country of over 70 million smokers, many of them children.
But according to Jakarta Post, Jokowi’s decision to send ministers to inform the House of his decision instead of inking a presidential letter has sparked concern that lawmakers would use the opportunity to lobby for Bill deliberations.
The English daily said the practice was unusual as Jokowi should have simply issued a letter to communicate his decision to the House, instead of sending messengers.
“Why wouldn’t [the president] issue a letter after making a decision…?” National Commission on Tobacco Control (KNPT) member Widyastuti Soerojo was quoted asking. “This will open channels for lobbying that could change the government’s standpoint.”
Another lobbyist, Tulus Abadi from the Indonesian Consumers Foundation (YLKI), urged Jokowi to stand by his decision, saying it complies with public demands.
“Jokowi must firmly announce that the deliberation will not take place as long as he is in office,” he said.
Under the draft law that seeks to protect domestic farmers, Reuters reported this week, manufacturers of tobacco products have to use locally sourced tobacco for at least 80 percent of their production, while imports of ready-to-use cigarettes may be subject to an excise tax of 200 percent.
Smoking is entrenched as a way of life in Indonesian culture. According to reports last year, the country ranked fourth on the list of nations with the most smokers, behind China, Russia and the US.
A Quartz report in February quoted pro-smoking group Komunitas Kretek as saying smoking is a “human right” and that those pushing for Indonesians to kick the habit were being fueled by fundamentalists from the West.
“It is a human right to smoke. Smokers feel like they don’t have their rights anymore.
“We need to stand up for our rights!” the group’s head Aditia Purnomo said. The 25-year-old, now a chain smoker, reportedly lit his first cigarette at the age of 12.
A 2015 report by the KNPT says 240,000 people died in Indonesia in 2013 because of tobacco. Health Ministry data from 2010 says 3.9 million children aged between 10 and 14 years become smokers every year in the country, while more than 40.3 million aged between zero and 14 become passive smokers due to the high prevalence of adult smokers.
Acknowledging these alarming numbers, Jokowi said this week that he understood the concerns of health advocates.
However, the president also pointed out that the welfare of the country’s millions of tobacco industry workers needed to be taken into consideration.
“I want to remind you all about what I said in the Cabinet meeting in June 2016, that the tobacco issue must be seen from two standpoints,” Jokowi was quoted in Jakarta Post as saying when discussing the tobacco Bill.
According to Southeast Asia Globe last year, tobacco farming is seen as a valuable source of jobs for Indonesians, with as many as 500,000 farmers working on growing crops and a further 600,000 working in the manufacturing cigarettes.
The industry is also an important source of tax revenue for the government, contributing as much as US$12.91 billion into state coffers in 2015, the third-largest contributor of any industry.
But in an editorial on Saturday, Jakarta Post urged the administration to stand firm on its decision not to allow debates on the Bill.
“The president must not have second thoughts, although we stand to lose state income from tobacco,” the media outlet wrote.
The leading English-language daily also said Jokowi’s decision to reject the Bill was not enough. The paper said the next step was to establish a roadmap for Indonesia that would help wean the country’s economy off its dependency on tobacco money.
“With a boost in public support for his decision, Jokowi’s government should issue a new roadmap to phase out tobacco production by shifting the dependency of farmers and cigarette factory workers to income sources other than tobacco.
“It will not be easy, but the blueprint would be a concrete sign of government support for citizens’ wellbeing,” it said.
The paper acknowledged the potential loss of income but urged Jokowi to be reminded of the toll that aggressive cigarette marketing and poor law enforcement have had on public health.
“Lawmakers also claim they are defending part of the ‘national heritage’ — our world-famous, sweet-smelling kretek (clove cigarettes).
“Tell that to the coughing people forced to sit beside puffing passengers on angkot (public minivans).”