Tuesday, June 8, 2010

The Indonesian 2 year-old who smokes 40 cigarettes a day

The baby's name is Ardi Rizal. He's from Musi Banyuasin in South Sumatra. And he's a 2-pack-a-day man.

I couldn't believe this was real when I first saw it... but then it IS in Indonesia. And knowing Indonesia as I do, it's actually not all that surprising.

Indonesia has many vices, but cigarette smoking is probably its most common. According to this article, the smoking rate amongst the population has risen in the last 20 years (from 53% to 60% of males). I've seen other estimates that it's closer to 70%. Compare that to neighbouring Singapore, where only around 30% of males smoke.

The reason for Indonesia's addiction? Free reign to the tobacco industry. Cigarettes are cheap, and there are few restrictions on cigarette advertising. Indeed, tobacco companies are ever-present as sponsors for youth events, and can enact strategies to snare young consumers that would be unthinkable in Western countries. And the government enjoys the tax income generated by all this consumption. The smoking rate is likely to increase as well, since traditionally smoking was considered unseemly for women. Yet as Indonesia continues to modernise, these old taboos fall away and young women, particularly in the cities, see smoking as a symbol of freedom and modernity. Hooray.

You can also blame kretek cigarettes. Kretek refers to cigarettes with shredded cloves mixed in with the tobacco - brands like Gudang Garam, Bentoel, Djarum and Sampoerna are the best known. The cloves give a slight sweetness that helps appeal to young people; no wonder then that the US recently passed laws banning them from sale there. In Indonesia however, they are the preferred cigarette of around 80% of the market. This is partly due to their cheapness - they are taxed at a lower rate, perhaps because Indonesia is a major producer of cloves.

The power of the tobacco lobby - not just the foreign-owned corporations, but also the many farmers in Indonesia - means that it is controversial to even claim that cigarettes are bad for you. We take it for granted that virtually all smokers in the West today know that it is a deadly habit, even while they choose to ignore the risks. But such knowledge cannot be assumed in a country like Indonesia.

So you can blame the parents - damn right, since his father first gave him a cigarette to try at age 18 months - but this is only the most extreme example of a nation-wide dysfunction.

UPDATE: Apparently little Ardi Rizal has been given some medical treatment that has reduced his habit to "only" 1 pack a day. So I guess that is sort of good news.


  1. Ever considered doing a research degree?! I'm serious; we need academics who can say what they mean and make it interesting...

    I saw this item about the smoking toddler on the news and was the same as you - disbelieving at first, then realising where it was and what the context might be like (you've clarified it a lot for me, though - my understanding of it was v. shallow). There were hysterical calls for the boy to be removed from his parents for 'child abuse', etc, and I tuned out after a bit.

    I must admit that I had a moment of 'crazy ! when will things change?!' recently. My mother has just returned from a month in Malaysia, and she told us that the shops don't give out plastic bags with purchases on Mon-Wed (this being an environmental/conservation initiative). Of course, this just means no-one goes shopping Mon-Wed!

  2. ugh. I put something in html brackets and it doesn't show up. Just FYI, above should read:

    I must admit that I had a moment of 'Crazy [insert nationality]s! When will things change?!' recently.

  3. @ tseen:

    well, it IS child abuse. But it is child abuse that occurs in a certain context.

    I don't think I have the attention span or dedication to do a research degree, to be honest!