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  • A view of Monas, the national monument, taken from Jakarta's City Hall.

    Even before my first trip to Jakarta in July, I knew that Indonesia was a daunting environment for tobacco control. First introduced by the Dutch, tobacco production is deeply rooted in the country’s history and culture, having been grown in Indonesian plantations since Dutch colonizers arrived in the 1600s. Today, more than 60% of Indonesian men smoke. Even more disturbing, a whopping 30% of Indonesian youth have smoked their first cigarette before they turn 10 years old. (This statistic was shockingly personified by the 2010 YouTube sensation, the “Smoking Baby,” who lives on the Indonesian island of Sumatra.)

    Needless to say, Indonesia isn’t an easy place to mount tobacco counter-advertising campaigns. Its huge and diverse population—at an estimated 245 million, the world’s fourth largest—is spread across a network of 17,000 separate islands. Indonesia is also one of the few countries that has not yet ratified the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, the global health treaty that calls for implementation of comprehensive tobacco control interventions. The tobacco industry in Indonesia faces virtually no restrictions when advertising their products, and spends an estimated US$180 million a year ensuring that Indonesians are reminded of cigarette brands as often as possible, whether they’re sitting in traffic, shopping at malls, or attending concerts—just to name a few venues where tobacco ads appear.

    A partner organization summarizes key points from our stakeholder meeting.

    With this grim reality in mind, I was braced for the worst as I queued for my entry visa to Indonesia. But after a week of meetings with government, NGO groups, and media agencies discussing plans for a possible tobacco control public education campaign later this year, I came away with a healthy dose of optimism that things in Indonesia may—slowly but surely—begin to turn around.

    For one, there were signs that the Governor of Jakarta’s smoke-free city regulation, passed in 2010, was being enforced to some degree. No-smoking signs were visible in many establishments, from hotels to shopping centers, and I was able to enjoy several meals at our hotel without any smoking going on around me. Veteran tobacco control advocates told me this was a vast improvement from just three years ago.

    We also found some strong and enthusiastic tobacco control allies—in civil society, in the corporate sector, and even in the local government. We relied on some NGOs’ extensive experience to navigate the complex network of potential partners, since some had ties with Big Tobacco, or even included people “planted” by the industry to understand the goings-on in tobacco control. We met with some media agencies who were keen to take on tobacco control projects, and who had never worked for any tobacco-industry clients—no small feat when Big Tobacco has lots of money to spend on advertising and promotion. One agency was eager to incorporate our tobacco control messages in its social responsibility campaigns, already going on in elementary schools. We also held some encouraging meetings with Jakarta government officials, who threw their weight behind our public education plans.

    Strong partnerships will be essential for making strides in tobacco control in Indonesia.

    Tobacco control in Indonesia will need all the support it can get on the long road ahead. Even as WLF met with partner organizations, tobacco farmers staged a protest against tobacco control interventions, and Gudang Garam, a major Indonesian manufacturer of clove cigarettes (kreteks), sponsored a concert featuring popular international recording artists. Despite the resistance of tobacco companies and their allies, the steadily strengthening network of dedicated tobacco control stakeholders in Jakarta offers some hopeful signs that we’re already at a turning point, for the city and for the rest of Indonesia.

    Mego Lien
    Communications and Editorial Manager
    World Lung Foundation

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