Big Tobacco is still king in Indonesia
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Big Tobacco is still king in Indonesia

INDONESIA’s powerful lobby for tobacco still holds the most clout compared to comparable industry bodies in other Asean nations, a new report has shown. 

From interfering with the development of tobacco control policies to having unnecessary interactions with the government –  Indonesia’s huge tobacco industry meant it occupied the bottom spot in the 2017 Tobacco Industry Interference Index.

Indonesia’s progress in implementing Article 5.3 of the World Health Organisation’s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC) – which guides countries to protect their tobacco control policies from vested interests of the tobacco industry – may be the worst in the region, but it’s not the only one moving slowly. The entire region is moving at “snail pace”, according to the report by the Southeast Asia Tobacco Control Alliance (SEATCA).

“Article 5.3 guidelines provide recommendations on the action governments can take to protect their health policies. Governments need to be more proactive and act fast to implement these measures,” Mary Assunta Kolandai, senior policy adviser for the alliance wrote to Asian Correspondent.

“The Philippines government for example acted quickly in 2010 and drew up the Civil Service Commission-Department of Health Joint Memorandum Circular to protect the bureaucracy from interference from the industry. None of the other governments in the ASEAN region have adopted a similar sector-wide code of conduct,” Kolanadai explained.

SEE ALSO: Philippines: Nationwide smoking ban starts today, Govt urges public support

Indonesia scored 81 points across several indicators of interference, followed by Vietnam (72 points) and Laos tied with Myanmar (60 points). On the other end of the index is Brunei Darussalam (29 points), the Philippines (39 points) and Thailand (49 points).

The annual report, released at a tobacco conference at the Western Pacific office of the World Health Organization (WHO) in Manila, monitors the region’s compliance with the 2003 WHO framework convention on tobacco control.

The findings come in the wake of The Philip Morris Files, a recent exposé on tobacco giant Philip Morris by Reuters which revealed how the largest publicly traded tobacco company deploys vast amounts of money and effort to undermine international efforts to reduce smoking, that could save millions of lives. 

SEE ALSO: India: Government tells Philip Morris to remove all smoking ads

Though there have been some marginal improvements in Indonesia – such as its Ministry of Health drawing up guidelines for industry interaction – high levels of industry interference remain in the form of  “avoiding the accession of FCTC, opposing any regulation or move to control tobacco (advertisement, health warning, smoke free places, raising tax), sponsoring sports and musical events,” Soewarto Kosen, a Policy Researcher at National Institute of Health Research and Development (NIHRD), Indonesia told Asian Correspondent.

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Big Tobacco want more Indonesian women to light up through targeted billboard advertisements and “feminine” packaging. Source: Shutterstock

The industry’s reach pervades all over Indonesia, Soewarto claims, including its remote areas and leaves no one, not even women and children, untargeted by its efforts to create new smokers. The Southeast Asian country already has the highest smoking prevalence rate among males in the world (67.4 percent), claiming around 200,000 lives annually and costing the country Rp 11 trillion (US$770 million), or 0.29 percent of the country’s gross domestic product (GDP), to treat tobacco-related diseases per year. Indonesia has yet to sign the FCTC.

The alliance recommends a “whole-of-government” approach to prevent tobacco industry participation in policy development, with a big focus on transparency which is sorely lacking in the region. Making information – such as government meetings with the tobacco industry, purpose of meetings, frequencies, lobbyists, etc which are now still shrouded in secret – public is a vital step in dealing with the industry.

Kalandai points to countries in the EU as well as Australia and New Zealand which have taken steps to publicise this information on their websites as models that Asean countries can follow: “Transparency of these meetings are an important part of good governance and protects the bureaucracy from being secretly lobbied.”