What a Drag

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I used to think that China was the last great refuge of the smoker, but that was before a short visit to Indonesia last week. Spend a day in the capital Jakarta, and China begins to seem like an Asian California of pristine air and enlightened tobacco control policy.

Try to imagine just how bad a country’s tobacco epidemic has to be in order to make China’s appear manageable. In Indonesia, there are no regulations governing age and the purchasing of tobacco. Cigarettes are advertised on TV, making you feel as if you’ve been transported back in time to 1971. There are cigarette ads on billboards. Tobacco companies sponsor everything from sports leagues to dance parties to scholarships. There are even rock concerts where, in order to gain admission, young people are required to buy a pack of the sponsoring brand of cigarette. In many poor households, tobacco is the second highest item of expenditure after staple foodstuffs, and the decision to buy it ahead of supplementary food items actively contributes to malnutrition. The government has not enacted any tobacco control law, but the Ministry of Industry has drawn up a plan to increase cigarette production by so many millions of sticks over the next ten years.

Around 22% of Indonesian youths smoke and some 14% of 13- to 15-year-olds claim to have been given free cigarettes. Mind you, I doubt that there are Indonesian smokers as young as this Chinese one. In some aspects of smoking, China still calls the shots.

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