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Rejecting tobacco pact, govt must empower farmers, enforce laws

A much lauded 2015 presidential decree on a national development strategy that aims to reduce the prevalence of smoking, especially among teenagers, by 25 percent over the next five years, heralded a change in tobacco policy.

But on Tuesday, the President proved that people had hung their hopes too high when he announced his refusal to ratify the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC) because his administration had not yet carefully considered the fate of the millions of people in the industry.

He has taken this belligerent stand even though he knows that 183 of the world’s 195 (or 196 if you consider Taiwan as an independent state) countries have endorsed the treaty. Indonesia is the only country in Asia that has yet to join the community.

“We don’t want to go with the flow and ratify it simply because most countries have done it. We want to really take the national interest into account,” he said after presiding over a Cabinet meeting.

By “national interest” he means farmers, other people in the industry, the huge market and Indonesia’s status as one of the world’s major tobacco growers.

His populist stance displays his administration’s perplexing policy. After he introduced Presidential Decree No. 2/2015, the Trade Ministry issued a completely different strategy that would allow production to reach 524 billion cigarettes in 2020. This came about despite a Health Ministry warning of the rising number of tobacco-related diseases.

The decree intends to cut the prevalence of smoking among people aged 18 years and younger from 7.2 percent in 2013 to 5.4 percent in 2019.

Jokowi’s reluctance to ratify the convention on tobacco controls is ironic because Indonesia was one of its initial supporters. It is adding credence to his critics’ accusations that the government serves the tobacco industry’s interest at the expense of public health and the wellbeing of the less fortunate.

Controlled by multinational corporations Philip Morris and British American Tobacco, which together command some 65 percent of the domestic market, the cigarette industry has been doing everything to convince the government that signing the treaty would eventually result in Indonesia being dictated to by the WHO and international anti-tobacco activists, as cited in The Jakarta Post’s reportage last week. This could in turn endanger the Rp 145 trillion (US$10.875 billion) the state receives in tax and excise from the industry, and impact some 6 million people in the trade.

The government’s refusal to ratify the convention will make sense only if the President proves his commitment to defend farmers, starting with reforming the tobacco trading system, which is controlled by the cigarette makers via middlemen, graders, loan sharks and traders.

As numerous studies show, it is this “mafia” that rakes in the bulk of the profits. Farmers must be guaranteed the access to sell their tobacco to the cigarette makers directly.

Furthermore, the government should also restrict the mechanization of cigarette production, blamed for massive dismissals in recent years. To support more local products, Jokowi should limit tobacco imports, which still account for about half of local needs.

Statistics from the Agriculture Ministry show that tobacco imports have steadily increased. In 1970, Indonesia imported 2,942 tons worth US$1.6 million and the figures sky-rocketed to 121,218 tons, worth $627.3 million, in 2013. In 2012, Indonesia produced 226,704 tons, making it the world’s fifth biggest tobacco producer after China, Brazil, India and US.

The unfair trading system has put farmers in the least profitable position. They share the “crumbs” of the big pie, as Hasbullah Thabrany from University of Indonesia’s Center for Health Economics and Policy Studies puts it.

However, it would be unrealistic to assume that the number of smokers would automatically drop if Indonesia signed the treaty. The country would still have a long way to go to incorporate the treaty into the local legal system and make it workable. Besides, the convention aims to control production from the farm to the cigarette. One ramification of this could be that the FCTC generates a tobacco cartel that could harm Indonesia as a major producer.

In Indonesia, tobacco and clove — which is blended to make the signature kretek — is more of a regional concern because these plants grow well commercially only in West Nusa Tenggara, East Java, Central Java, West Java and North Sumatra. It is only those five provinces that enjoy the dividends that the central government amasses from tobacco and cigarette tax revenues, but their products affect all 34 provinces, threatening people’s health and burning ever larger holes in their finances.

While waiting for the right time to ratify the treaty, Indonesia should do its best to reduce smoking based on Government Regulation No. 109/2012 on the control of addictive tobacco products. The regulation strictly regulates cigarette advertising; bans smoking in certain public places like schools and hospitals; and forbids the sale of cigarettes to people under the age of 18.

Our biggest problem is not the absence of good laws, but rather poor law enforcement.

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