Indonesia – Policy makers bend backwards for TI

17 December 2018:

The three richest men in Indonesia has just become even richer. They are the Hartono brothers (worth US$35 billion) who own PT Djarum, and the second richest is Susilo Wonowidjojo (worth US$9.2 billion) of PT Gudang Garam. They top the Forbes-Indonesia rich list yet again, and for the past 10 years.

The sad tragedy is many of Indonesia’s poor and children smoke, and the tobacco growers have remained disadvantaged to contribute to the immense wealth of the tobacco companies however this seems to go unnoticed. This means little to policy makers who strive to provide a more conducive environment for the tobacco industry’s business to succeed.

Just these past few weeks saw four important events which demonstrate how far the policy makers and regulators are willing to bend backwards to protect and promote the tobacco industry:

  1. No tobacco tax increase in Indonesia for 2019 – a decision which took everyone by surprise as cigarettes – often sold in single sticks – continue to remain dirt cheap.
  2. Removal of tobacco from the Negative Investment (DNI) List which will open up more foreign investment in the tobacco industry, and defeat President Joko Widodo’s aim to reduce the number of smokers of children and adolescents.
  3. Indonesia signed Preferential Trade Agreement with Pakistan (IP-PTA) which will increase imports from Pakistan for a range of products including tobacco. The IP-PTA will reduce tariff to 0% on 20 tariff lines including tobacco from Pakistan by end of this year.
  4. Bogor city under pressure to revoke its cigarette pack display ban which was enacted to protect children from being exposed to tobacco advertising.

It seems the tobacco industry simply applied a disinformation strategy, referred to as “FUD” – fearuncertainty and doubt – usually used in sales, marketing, public relations and politics to persuade policy makers to act in favour of protecting the industry from public health.

This FUD strategy of appeal to fear is not new, but it seems to work effectively to undermine and defeat tobacco control by influencing perception through the dissemination of negative, dubious or false information. Throughout the year there were ample examples of FUD – there will be massive unemployment, out of control cigarette smuggling, millions of angry farmers and collapse of a crucial industry in Indonesia – should the government enact tobacco control measures.

What is not clear is why FUD is not working the other way for tobacco control for these same policy makers:

  • Fear of epidemic proportion of deaths 240,000 a year from tobacco and of the already out of control epidemic, not to mention very small children smoking are a common feature.
  • Uncertainty of how to provide adequate treatment for the sick and thousands more new patients in the years to come, and an effective programme to stop children from smoking;
  • Doubt the false and dubious information provided by the TI and its front groups that tobacco control won’t collapse the industry, nor cause massive unemployment and make farmers go hungry.

There may be other factors at play besides FUD. The ASEAN Tobacco Industry Interference Index has shown over the years (2014 – 2018) Indonesia is lagging far behind other countries in issues of lack of transparency when dealing with the industry, unnecessary interactions between the industry and government officials, and officials accepting charity from the tobacco companies – all issues of lack of good governance. Good governance is an antidote that will protect the administration and set them in the right direction, but for now they need to quickly wake up from the TI’s FUD tactics.

For more information on preventing TI interference and for good governance see: FCTC Article 5.3 Toolkit