Big Tobacco Wants Indonesian Women to Light Up and Liberate

Big Tobacco Wants Indonesian Women to Light Up and Liberate

By Nithin Coca


Because it’s a looming health crisis.

By Nithin Coca

They’re unavoidable in much of the country. New billboards are popping up all over Indonesia, aimed at a young, increasingly progressive population. The ads feature cigarettes in “feminine” packaging or alongside slender, attractive women. In a land that can lay claim to the infamous smoking baby and one of the highest adult male smoking rates in the world, women are the latest targets in the tobacco industry’s attempts to attract more Indonesians to their products.

And it’s working — so far. According to the nongovernmental organization Smoke Free Bandung, the number of regular female smokers in Indonesia has increased by 400 percent in the past five years. Tobacco control advocates find this development alarming; tobacco companies may see it as encouraging, given the male enthusiasm for smoking in Indonesia and the broad declines in the number of female smokers elsewhere. Smoking rates among English women, for example, plummeted from 40 percent in 1974 to 14.9 percent in 2015, according to Public Health England. The U.S. has seen similar declines; just 13.6 percent of American women now smoke, according to a 2015 survey by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Indonesia is really a playground for the tobacco companies.

Mark Hurley, director, Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids

Meanwhile, female smokers in Indonesia are picking up some of the slack. Experts point to tobacco industry lobbying and cozy government connections as the reasons why those billboards with ads for smoking — banned in most of the world — are displayed so prominently. Together, lax policies on both tobacco control and marketing put millions at risk and create the potential for a public health disaster. 

The Tobacco Atlas, which is published by a consortium of nonsmoking groups, estimates that smoking claims about 217,000 Indonesian lives each year. “Among Asian countries, Indonesia is the only one that has not joined the World Health Organization’s Tobacco Control Treaty,” says Mark Hurley, director of Indonesia programs at the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, an international public interest group. “There’s no meaningful national law to reduce tobacco use, and tobacco companies are very well-entrenched in all levels of politics. Indonesia is really a playground for the tobacco companies.” Indonesia-based tobacco companies contacted by OZY declined requests for comment.


To be sure, officials in some places have taken steps to combat smoking, including a 2012 ordinance in the capital, Jakarta, that limited the size and placement of billboards and the broadcasting of TV commercials between certain hours. That was followed by tougher ordinances in 2015 that prohibited indoor and outdoor advertising for cigarettes and other tobacco products. Nevertheless, Hasan Aoni Aziz, general secretary of the Association of Indonesian Cigarette Producers, cried foul, telling the Jakarta Post website in 2016 that cigarettes are a legal product, and companies have the right to advertise all legal products — a right Aziz claims is protected by the Indonesian Constitution. A spokesperson for Komunitas Kretek, a pro-smoking advocacy group with close ties to the tobacco industry, tells OZY that existing advertising regulations are sufficient and argues that “the issue is not in advertising but [in] the implementation of the rules.”

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Sports and slogans: a billboard hawking kretek (clove) cigarettes.

Source John van Hasselt / Corbis via Getty Images

Those attitudes make Indonesia seem out of step with the times, especially as some of its neighbors take a much more vigorous approach to addressing a prominent public health issue. In the Philippines, for example, where a quarter of the population uses tobacco products, including 5.1 percent of women, according to a 2015 WHO report, President Rodrigo Duterte recently and aggressively cracked down on smoking.

While a 400 percent growth rate makes it seem as though female smoking in Indonesia already is a massive problem, it’s actually a recent trend. According to The Tobacco Atlas, female smoking rates in Indonesia are still quite low — 3.6 percent in 2013, compared to more than 55 percent for men. This is mostly due to social norms. In Indonesia, smoking traditionally has been seen as socially unacceptable for women. Even today, many women are inhibited about smoking in public for fear of reprisals from men or elders. “Historically, Indonesian women are expected to comply with certain behavior,” says Tuti Roosdiono with Indonesian Women Against Tobacco, an NGO that fights for stronger tobacco regulations. “Women who smoke are stigmatized as not behaving properly.”

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Factory workers hand-roll kretek cigarettes in Surabaya, Indonesia. More than 90 percent of the country’s smokers prefer clove brands over “white” (tobacco-only) cigarettes.

Source Juni Kriswanto / Kriswanto / AFP / Getty Images

The tobacco industry wants to change all that. Ad spending on billboards and TV and in magazines and stores jumped from $202 million in 2010 to $474 million in 2016, according to research firms Nielsen and AdsTensity. By connecting smoking with symbols of women’s new, expanded role in society, the industry seems to be imitating the “Torches for Freedom” public relations campaign in the U.S. in the 1920s, when cigarette manufacturers turned smoking into a symbol of female liberation.

In fact, Roosdiono sees shifting social norms as one reason for the increase in female smokers. “Indonesian women today, particularly in the cities, gain the same status as men … and are more open to speak their minds than they were in the past,” says Roosdiono. Advertising, she continues, plays into these changes: “Young women … model their behavior in accordance with the aggressive and repetitive images bombarded by tobacco advertisement, promotion and sponsorship.”

Still, there is hope. One of Indonesia’s most famous female smokers, the popular, tattooed Minister of Fisheries Susi Pudjiastuti, recently announced that she is quitting smoking. If she succeeds, perhaps she can show Indonesian women that they don’t need smoking to gain true independence.