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July 13th, 2016:

Indonesia on track to become world’s largest tobacco market

If current trends hold, Indonesia is on track to become the world’s largest market for tobacco. As other countries move to regulate the industry, why is Indonesia having such a tough time kicking the habit?

Few smells are as ubiquitous to Indonesia as that emitted by the popular kretek cigarette. A mix of cloves and tobacco, its soft-smelling smoke can be found in cafés, bars and warungs in every corner of the archipelago – and in the hands of Indonesians of all ages.

“If you go into local communities, you often see small kids smoking,” said Mark Hurley, Indonesia programme director for the Campaign For Tobacco-Free Kids. “There’s a real cultural norm – anywhere you go, you’ll see someone smoking.”

This is no accident. The global tobacco industry has, with the acquiescence of the country’s government, used a mix of advertising, marketing and cigarettes flavoured with cloves and chocolate to turn Indonesia into a nation of smoking addicts – and one of the most valuable tobacco markets in the world.

Addict: two-year-old Aldi Suganda Rizal smokes a cigarette at his family home in Indonesia.

Addict: two-year-old Aldi Suganda Rizal smokes a cigarette at his family home in Indonesia.

“The Indonesian government is absolutely failing to protect the health of its citizens by allowing tobacco products to be heavily marketed across the country,” said Action on Smoking & Health executive director Laurent Huber. “They are favouring the interests and profits of Big Tobacco.”

The end result is a looming public health disaster. According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), Indonesia has one of the highest male smoking rates in the world at 67% – and the number of women lighting up is rising fast as well, partly due to role models such as the popular, chain-smoking fisheries minister Susi Pudjiastuti breaking down gender norms. The impacts are already huge, with the WHO estimating that smoking claims about 425,000 Indonesian lives each year – nearly a quarter of the country’s annual deaths. Some media outlets have even begun referring to the country as ‘Tobaccoland’.

“Cigarettes are still cheap, freely promoted and available on every street. Indonesia has to raise taxes on tobacco”

Smoking rates began to fall in the global north due to huge scandals surrounding revelations in the 1990s that US tobacco companies not only knew about the harmful effects of smoking, but had hidden this information from consumers for years. This, along with concerted anti-smoking campaigns, has led to steady declines in smoking rates in many developed countries in recent decades, including the US, much of Western Europe and Japan. It is little surprise, therefore, that according to Huber, “low-income countries are where tobacco companies see their biggest potential growth”.

Today, Philip Morris’ local subsidiary Sampoerna is one of Indonesia’s largest companies, occupying one of the most imposing towers in a prime spot on Jakarta’s main boulevard, Jalan Sudirman. The firm is free not only to advertise, but also to pursue corporate social responsibility programmes and even sponsor educational events.

“The [government] does not make any restrictions on how and when tobacco advertisements can be published or broadcast,” said Tuti Roosdiono from Indonesian Woman Against Tobacco, an NGO fighting for stronger tobacco regulations. “The [youth] are the target of the tobacco industry, through musical and sport promotions.” Roosdiono added that a huge percentage of the media’s profits come from tobacco adverts, one reason the industry appears loathe to support any advertising restrictions. In contrast, nearby Cambodia, Laos and Singapore have all banned direct advertising, promotion and sponsorships, and all have lower smoking rates than Indonesia.

Compounding the challenge are tobacco companies’ cosy relationships with government, and many anti-smoking advocates believe this is why Indonesia is lagging far behind its neighbours in passing even the most basic tobacco control legislation. Taxes, for example, remain very low by global standards, at just 46% of the retail price, according to the Southeast Asia Tobacco Control Alliance (SEATCA). Thailand’s rate is 70%, while Singapore’s is 72%.

“Cigarettes are still very cheap, freely promoted and available on every street and at every corner shop,” said Mary Assunta, a senior policy advisor with SEATCA. “Indonesia has to raise taxes on tobacco and make cigarettes more expensive.”

Indonesia is now the world’s fifth-largest tobacco market, with 340 billion cigarettes produced in 2014

On the flip side, tobacco farming is a valuable source of jobs, with an estimated 500,000 farmers growing the valuable cash crop and another 600,000 working in manufacturing, in what is now a multibillion-dollar industry. The majority of tobacco is grown in the fertile soils of East Java province, where, according to the WHO, the number of smallholder farms growing the crop has increased over the past decade due to growing demand both within the country and for exports, which totalled $295m last year. For a country with rampant rural poverty, tobacco is, for many families, an important livelihood. It is also an important source of tax revenue, sending $12.91 billion into state coffers last year, the third-largest contributor of any industry.

Besides still allowing advertising and flavoured cigarettes – which many tobacco control experts believe operate as gateways to addiction for children – the country is also the only nation in Southeast Asia that has not yet ratified the WHO’s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC), the primary international mechanism for cooperation on implementing public health responses to limit smoking.

“The promotion of public health in Indonesia, especially on the danger of tobacco against people’s health, is very limited compared with the marketing promotion of the tobacco industry,” said Roosdiono. “A strong treaty on tobacco control would provide a legally binding counterforce to the tobacco industry’s expansion.”

Now, the tobacco lobby is pushing for kretek cigarettes to receive ‘national heritage’ designation in a bill currently being considered by parliament, despite the fact that tobacco is not native to Indonesia and that kreteks only emerged in the 19th century. According to Tobacco-Free Kids, the real reason the lobby wants to do this is not to preserve any heritage, but to maintain its special status and market access, even if Indonesia begins to control tobacco more.

“Clove cigarettes pose a particular challenge,” said Hurley. “If this move goes forward, it would take Indonesia backwards in the fight against smoking.” Anti-tobacco campaigners are concerned that, even if strong tobacco control legislation is passed in the future, this ‘heritage’ designation could open up a major advertising loophole for the industry. Though a similar proposal was rejected last year, the industry is trying to make this designation part of an expected tobacco bill that, for now, is focused more on protecting farmers than addressing public health.

Despite a lack of public health action by bureaucrats in the central government ministries of Jakarta, those at the local and regional levels, empowered by decentralisation, are taking tobacco control measures into their own hands.

“We’ve seen a real shift in the awareness of the harms and dangers in tobacco use over the [eight] years we’ve been working [in Indonesia],” said Huber. “Cities and provinces throughout Indonesia are increasingly moving to make public indoor places smoke-free.”

The latest example is Surabaya, Indonesia’s second-largest city, which is considered a model for effective governance in the developing world and is led by its independent governor Tri Rismaharini, who plans to ban smoking in all public spaces. And in Jakarta, another popular independent governor, Basuki “Ahok” Tjahaja Purnama, has banned tobacco advertising in the city.

Anti-tobacco proponents are optimistic that action at the regional level will filter up to the national government and force, for the first time, real change. The question is whether or not this will happen fast enough to avoid the lingering, harmful health impacts of tobacco. “So far, pointing out at an intellectual level that tobacco use is harmful is only slowly transforming into the public movement that is necessary,” said Hurley.

If Indonesia needs a model, it only has to look across the Celebes Sea to its neighbouring island nation, the Philippines. Also plagued with rapidly rising smoking rates and a powerful tobacco lobby, the country began turning the tide by signing the FCTC and passing a tobacco tax in 2012 that reduced cigarette sales from 5.76 billion packs to 4.97 billion packs the year after its introduction.

“As a result of their public health policies, the Philippines has experienced a decrease in smoking prevalence and increasing revenue from tobacco taxes,” said Huber.

As things stand, Indonesia is far from adopting this model and, for now, remains a key moneymaker for the global tobacco industry. It is now the world’s fifth-largest tobacco market, with 340 billion cigarettes produced in 2014, a number that is expected to grow. Only time will tell whether the government will join numerous other nations in tackling this public health challenge, or end up, if current trends hold, in the inglorious position of being the country with the most smokers in the world.

Up in Smoke: Why China has Banned Foreign Investment in Tobacco

China’s Ministry of Industry and Information Technology (MIIT) recently announced regulations barring foreign investment in the country’s enormous tobacco industry, blocking foreign-invested enterprises and individual businesses from participating in tobacco wholesale, retail, and alternative forms of trading. These new restrictions come on the heels of various government efforts to reduce China’s rampant tobacco use, with middling results to date.

By Alexander Chipman Koty

China’s Ministry of Industry and Information Technology (MIIT) recently announced regulations barring foreign investment in the country’s enormous tobacco industry, blocking foreign-invested enterprises and individual businesses from participating in tobacco wholesale, retail, and alternative forms of trading. These new restrictions come on the heels of various government efforts to reduce China’s rampant tobacco use, with middling results to date.

There are more than 320 million smokers in China, making it the world’s largest producer and consumer of tobacco products. While comprising about 20 percent of the world’s population, China is responsible for 45 percent of all cigarettes consumed globally. With an ageing population, a shrinking workforce, and an increasingly prosperous society, China faces mounting pressure to look after the wellbeing of its constituents, but that comes at a significant price.

Tobacco cessation products and healthcare services stand to benefit from increased supervision of the tobacco industry. Although China is moving toward regulation, wavering government commitment because of the industry’s huge profitability and deep-seated use within society stand in the way of stamping out tobacco’s pervasive presence. The country remains a challenging market for tobacco cessation products and services.

Tobacco use in China

Tobacco use is firmly entrenched in Chinese society, with applications ranging from day-to-day use to deeper cultural practices. Usage is starkly divided between the sexes — 68 percent of Chinese men smoke, compared to only 3.2 percent of women. However, all are exposed to the negative health effects of smoking. Ineffective smoking restrictions in indoor and public places such as restaurants and offices means about 740 million Chinese are exposed to secondhand smoke. As a result of widespread tobacco use and the country’s issues with pollution, China has the most lung cancer diagnoses and fatalities in the world.

Social pressure for men to smoke is significant; those who refuse cigarettes are often met with curious looks and the offerer loses face. In China, offering cigarettes is a symbolic way of establishing trust and forming relationships, particularly among strangers. Similarly to the deep-rooted drinking culture among business people, expensive cigarettes and tobacco products are commonly presented as gifts, and there is often pressure to smoke with coworkers and business partners. Compounded with these practices are ill-informed myths and misconceptions about tobacco, including beliefs that Asians are less susceptible to tobacco’s negative health effects, that it is easy to quit, and that smoking is an ancient part of Chinese culture, according to the Lancet medical journal.

Government involvement in the tobacco industry

The Chinese tobacco market is dominated by the China National Tobacco Corporation (CNTC), a state-owned enterprise (SOE) that is responsible for 98 percent of all cigarettes sold in China. The CNTC owns more than 900 brands, from large ones such as Hong Shuangxi, Yun Yan, and Zhongnanhai, to smaller regional brands and derivatives. The CNTC’s state monopoly has made the penetration of foreign brands largely unsuccessful, and only a small number of them have been manufactured in China. Foreign companies are only able to manufacture and sell their tobacco products through a joint venture with the CTNC. For example, Marlboro, one of the world’s largest tobacco brands, only started manufacturing in China in 2008 after coming to an agreement with the CNTC to promote Chinese brands overseas.

Government restriction of foreign competition is largely explained by tobacco’s extraordinary profitability. Further, restricting foreign companies’ access to China increases the CNTC’s leverage to access international markets and compete with established brands. An incredible 7-10 percent of all government revenue is through tobacco sales, giving the State Tobacco Monopoly Administration (STMA) vast power. Chinese Premier Li Keqiang’s younger brother headed the STMA until February 2015, demonstrating its stature. While the long-term costs of medical services and premature losses of workers is higher than immediate profits, it is difficult for the government to jettison a steady source of revenue by committing to tobacco dissuasion at a time when other streams are slowing.

The uneven implementation of recent reforms points to this reluctance. The government issued a draft law for public consultation in late 2014 banning smoking in all indoor places and some outdoor ones, as well as restricting advertising, and in 2015 raised taxes on wholesale cigarettes from 5 to 11 percent. However, the government ultimately backtracked on many of its initial proposals, allowing restaurants, bars, hotels, and airports to have smoking sections and allowing smoking in individual offices. Combined with infrequent enforcement of existing restrictions, the laws do little to dissuade smoking.

The tobacco cessation market

Government efforts to discourage smoking, however halfhearted, combined with China’s massive smoking population offer immense but difficult-to-grasp potential for tobacco cessation products.

Tobacco cessation products encounter a variety of challenges when attempting to penetrate the Chinese market. Nicotine patches are the most popular cessation product in China; other products with varying degrees of scientific credibility that are also used include e-cigarettes, toothpaste, cigarette holders, and Chinese medicines. Product use is low. In 2014, Johnson & Johnson stopped selling its leading Nicorette product there due to poor sales. Other companies like Pfizer and Novartis have entered the Chinese market calculating a long timeframe before costs can be recovered. Despite the lack of profits, foreign pharmaceutical companies face relatively little competition, as Venturepharm is the only Chinese company producing tobacco cessation medication.

Although e-cigarettes are often marketed as an anti-smoking product, many dispute this, arguing that they are just as bad, or even worse than regular cigarettes. Regardless, there is little awareness of e-cigarettes in China, and those who use them generally do so as a fashion statement. While about 90 percent of the world’s e-cigarettes are made in the southern city of Shenzhen, almost all are exported to foreign markets. The e-cigarette industry is currently unregulated, but the National Health and Family Planning Commission has stated its intent to regulate production, sale, and use of e-cigarettes.

The disappointing performance of tobacco cessation products is in part explained by high costs. E-cigarettes in China are decidedly more expensive than regular cigarettes, and a full round of medication costs upward of RMB 2,000. The deeper cause of the tobacco cessation industry’s poor performance is the lack of awareness and desire for smokers to quit. Fewer than 25 percent of Chinese adults understand the specific health hazards of tobacco use. Additionally, fewer than 10 percent of Chinese smokers quit by choice, in comparison to more than 50 percent in many high-income countries where there are more former smokers than smokers.


China is slowly addressing its tobacco problem. In 2015, cigarette sales in China declined for the first time in two decades, demonstrating some success in smoking dissuasion. However, this is mostly due to higher taxes curtailing frequent use, rather than reducing the number of individual smokers.

As is commonplace for foreign investors doing business in emerging economies, the specter of SOEs such as the CNTC often complicates business. Vested interests ranging from pure profits to sprawling bureaucracies and payrolls to corruption in the form of kickbacks make it difficult for foreign companies to compete with SOEs who benefit from preferential treatment. This phenomenon has tragic consequences in China’s tobacco industry, where the state’s lucrative monopoly hinders efforts to curb tobacco use, resulting in exploding cancer rates and premature deaths.

While China presents an enormous opportunity for tobacco cessation products, success will be difficult to achieve without genuine government efforts to spread awareness of tobacco’s adverse health effects. With growing healthcare costs and productivity losses, however, China is gradually moving toward tighter control of tobacco use. Although China is not yet primed for tobacco cessation products, it is a question of time before the public comes to grips with the ramifications of its smoking habit, making it essential for producers to create an entry strategy.

About the author: This article originally appeared in China Briefing, a subsidiary of Dezan Shira & Associates. Dezan Shira is a specialist foreign direct investment practice, providing corporate establishment, business advisory, tax advisory and compliance, accounting, payroll, due diligence and financial review services to multinationals investing in China, Hong Kong, India, Vietnam, Singapore and the rest of ASEAN. For further information, please or visit

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