Last May, a shocking a video was posted on the internet showing a toddler in Indonesia who had become a tourist attraction for his chain smoking. Aldi Rizal’s father had given him cigarettes at eighteen months and the two-year old, living on the island of Sumatra, was smoking 40 cigarettes a day. The young boy had to be weaned off his nicotine addiction by the country’s child protection commission and the case highlighted a growing problem of tobacco dependence in the country.
According to the Health Ministry, nearly a third of Indonesians over the age of 10 smoke and on average they get through 12 cigarettes per day. In a report released last year, the government found that 10 per cent of people began smoking between the ages of 10 and 14 years, while a small percentage started as young as five. Indonesia now has the highest percentage of young smokers in the world and experts are worried about the general ignorance of the health consequences which are likely to affect them later in life.
With three in every four adult males smoking, one campaigner with the non-governmental organisation ‘Tobacco Control Network’ is also worried about the dangers of passive smoking. Kartono Mohamad, a former head of Indonesia’s Medical Association, says it is common for men to smoke around their pregnant wives and children. A health law was passed in 2009 which labelled tobacco as an addictive substance, but tobacco farmers in central Java are fighting this definition in the hopes of protecting their livelihoods. Despite the farmers’ appeal currently being debated through a constitutional court, the government is nevertheless working on regulation which would restrict cigarette advertising and sponsorship in line with the 2009 health legislation.
Restrictions on advertising are seen as key by Indonesian health experts in their fight against the country’s growing addiction to nicotine. Official statistics already show an increase in deaths from non-communicable diseases (including smoking-related) of nearly 50% in 2008 compared to figures from 2001. Charity and health workers hope that despite the strong tobacco lobby, changes to the law will go through and that in the future, information about the dangers of smoking will become more widespread. But these changes may already be too late for the young generation of smokers. One 15 year-old street child, Dimas Riyadi, is typical of youngsters his age. Denying that smoking will ever make him sick, the boy sees nothing wrong with his cigarette habit, saying “all my friends smoke, so it’s natural that I smoke too.”