The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Indonesia, where smoking is widespread, just placed tough restrictions on e-cigarettes

A worker smokes during a break at a fabric factory in Indonesia's Central Java province. (Beawiharta/Reuters)

JAKARTA, Indonesia — Indonesia is placing prohibitive restrictions on the sale of e-cigarette materials, and Trade Minister Enggartiasto Lukita last week offered an easy solution for the growing number of citizens using the products.

They can just “become regular smokers,” he told local newspaper Kompas, a seemingly puzzling statement for a government official in a country where over 200,000 people already die of tobacco-related causes each year.

But observers of politics in the world's fourth most populous country say this is nothing new, and that because of the power of the tobacco industry here, Indonesia lags far behind rest of the world in controlling use, and suffers from severe health problems as a result.

Indonesia is the only country in the Asia-Pacific region that has not ratified the World Health Organization's Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, and over 5 million children smoke cigarettes, said Dr. Widyastuti Soerojo, head of the Tobacco Control Unit in the Indonesian Public Health Association.

“The tobacco industry here is very strong. Unlike in most other countries now, they're still perceived simply as a normal business and treated that way,” she said. “We lack many control measures that are needed, and those rules we do have, like on advertising to children, often go unenforced.”

When it comes to other substances, Indonesia is far from tolerant. The government periodically executes people by firing squad — usually foreigners — for nonviolent drug offenses. President Joko Widodo recently implied that his country could take some cues from the neighboring Philippines, where Rodrigo Duterte's war on drugs has left thousands of people dead. And in Indonesia, the world's largest Muslim-majority country, the sale of alcohol is prohibited in convenience stores and is heavily taxed where available.

Though directly comparable data is not available, it's likely that tobacco use in Indonesia causes more death and illness than the use of illegal drugs. But kids here are still treated to lengthy tobacco ads before watching Hollywood superhero movies, smoking indoors is common, and cigarettes are cheap, taxed at a level far below what the United Nations recommends.

Analysts believe this is because tobacco companies like Djarum, HM Sampoerna (now owned by Philip Morris), and Gudang Garam are some of the country's most wealthy and politically connected, and the popular “kretek” clove cigarettes are sometimes seen as a part of local culture.

“The big companies have convinced the government they are important for local [tobacco] farmers and for tax revenues,” said Mark Hurley, communications director and former Indonesia country director at the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids in Washington. “But in reality, the costs of treating diseases caused by tobacco far outweigh any economic benefits.”

Hurley added that around 60 percent of men smoke, the highest known rate of male tobacco consumption in the world.

There are debates about the health effects of e-cigarettes, but many experts believe they are, at the very least, not as harmful as addiction to traditional cigarettes.

A spokesperson for the Ministry of Trade, while confirming that Lukita made the comments reported by Kompas, said the department would decline to make further comments about the influence of the tobacco lobby on Indonesian policy.

The new legislation concerning vapor products, which will go into effect in the next few months, will require vendors to seek a combination of special government licenses, which could take years to acquire.

“These are standards we'll never be able to meet,” says Rhomedal, a spokesperson for Indonesia's Personal Vaporizer Association, who like some Indonesians only uses one name. “It will really hurt both small businesses and consumers in our sector.”

Additional reporting was contributed by Stanley Widianto.