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Indonesia’s Toddlers are Hooked on Cigarettes

Updated on December 2, 2015
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Black Lungs

What would you do if you saw a five-year-old trying to buy a pack of Marlboros? This doesn’t sound like a realistic scenario to most of the world, but in Indonesia it’s a rather mundane act.

There are three times as many 5 to 9-year-old boys and twice as many 10 to 14-year-old boys smoking compared to 20 years ago. Today, forty-one percent of 13 to 15-year-old Indonesian boys smoke cigarettes, according to Lentera Anak Indonesia, a children’s right non-profit group.

Dihan Muhamad smokes two packs a day, his first kiss with death at 7am before first grade. Ilham Hadi began turning his pink lungs black when he was four. Ilham Muhamad suffers painful withdrawals when his grandmother doesn’t give him enough money to purchase cigarettes. These are just three snapshots of the many Indonesian boys addicted to nicotine featured in Michelle Siu’s photo essay, Marlboro Boys.

Five-year-old smoking in Indonesia
Five-year-old smoking in Indonesia | Source

“I had my first cigarette when I was 13. When I found out how bad it was I tried to quit, but I couldn’t. They say nicotine isn’t addictive.” Debi Austin tilts her head back and smokes her cigarette through a hole in her throat. “How could they say that?”

These are the tobacco advertisements I remember growing up with. Debi Austin was part of California’s original anti-smoking campaign. I was about six years old when this commercial came out and I still remember it. Unfamiliar with laryngectomy at the time, she scared me. Now familiar, it still scares me. It might scare Indonesia’s youth too, if they saw them.

“Children start smoking early in life in indonesia quite simply because it’s everywhere,” Siu continued. “Advertisements are everywhere and branding is everywhere, especially where kids are.”

Indonesia is one of nine countries in the United Nations that has not signed the World Health Organization’s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control. The treaty aims to protect current and future generations from the “ devastating health, social, environmental and economic consequences of tobacco consumption and exposure to tobacco smoke”. This lapse in signature is part of the reason why prices are cheap and ads are legal.

There are no governmental bans on direct tobacco advertising. Maybe more damaging, there were no mass media anti-tobacco campaigns, no Debi’s, the past two years, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).

Deep Breath

“I had my first cigarette when I was 13. When I found out how bad it was I tried to quit, but I couldn’t. They say nicotine isn’t addictive.” Debi Austin tilts her head back and smokes her cigarette through a hole in her throat. “How could they say that?”

These are the tobacco advertisements I remember growing up with. Debi Austin was part of California’s original anti-smoking campaign. I was about six years old when this commercial came out and I still remember it. Unfamiliar with laryngectomy at the time, she scared me. Now familiar, it still scares me. It might scare Indonesia’s youth too, if they saw them.

“Children start smoking early in life in Indonesia quite simply because it’s everywhere,” Siu continued. “Advertisements are everywhere and branding is everywhere, especially where kids are.”

Indonesia is one of nine countries in the United Nations that has not signed the World Health Organization’s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control. The treaty aims to protect current and future generations from the “ devastating health, social, environmental and economic consequences of tobacco consumption and exposure to tobacco smoke”. This lapse in signature is part of the reason why prices are cheap and ads are legal.

There are no governmental bans on direct tobacco advertising. Maybe more damaging, there were no mass media anti-tobacco campaigns, no Debi’s, the past two years, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).

Breath Easier

The world began to notice Indonesia’s epidemic when a video dubbed “Smoking Baby” went viral in 2011. Moral outcrys rang across the globe as wealthier, tobacco educated countries watched 2-year-old Ardi Rizal puff away. Reporters able to track down the family discovered his father gave him his first cigarette at 18 months.

While the global banter did little to hinder Indonesia’s young smokers, anti-tobacco groups received their first victory this year. Graphic packaging- something the United States unsuccessfully attempted in 2013.

Cigarette packs must now include health warnings at the top of the packaging, covering at least 40 percent of the front and back. The warning describes the harmful effects of tobacco use and include either a graphic or photograph with mandated font style, size and color.

Graphic cigarette packing sold in Melbourne, Australia
Graphic cigarette packing sold in Melbourne, Australia | Source

But are pictures enough to deter the preschool boy who doesn’t know how to read the health warning? Can the warning overcome the “invincible” pre-teen mindset? The truth is, even if these children are capable of understanding the deadly effects of tobacco, they couldn’t just call it quits; they are victims of addiction.

About 80 to 90 percent of regular smokers are addicted to nicotine, according to Smokefree. It takes tremendous willpower, pain tolerance and support groups for most adults to quit. It’s a physical and mental battle that led Mark Twain to say, “quitting smoking is easy. I’ve done it a thousand times.” Dizziness, irritability, nightmares, relentless boredom, sore throat, coughing, and trouble concentrating are just a small list of the physical difficulties commonly linked with quitting. It’s misery for an adult, it’s debilitating for a child. And for the child’s parents, it’s a week long temper tantrum too easy to end with a ten cent cigarette.

Graphic cigarette packaging is, unquestionably, an important first step in changing Indonesia's public perception of smoking. Pictures of grotesque nicotine-caused diseases don’t mesh with the beautiful and elite smoking persona. But that’s all it is - a stepping stone. The smoking toddlers are the country’s next great leaders, educators, and doctors, and there’s a good chance many will be suffering from years and years of addiction if changes begin and end with packaging.

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