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Plain cigarette packaging to put smokers off, ministry hopes

The Health Ministry is pushing for plain packaging on all cigarettes sold in Indonesia to reduce the alarmingly high smoking rate, especially among adolescents, which claims 200,000 lives per year.

The idea behind plain packaging is that a uniform, ugly color and the lack of brand logos on products may deter consumers from picking up a pack.

Indonesia began moving into that direction in 2014 when it required companies to put graphic warnings on their cigarette packages.

“But only three of these five images are scary. The other two are not scary at all, as they just depict men smoking,” former Indonesian Broadcasting Commission deputy chairwoman Nina Mutmainnah Armando said.

With pictorial warnings deemed insufficient, plain packaging is seen as the logical next step to contain consumption.

Indonesians spent at least Rp 330 trillion (US$ 24.3 billion) last year to finance their smoking habit. Data from the 2014 Global Youth Tobacco Survey reveal that 20.3 percent of Indonesian teenagers between 13 and 15 years of age are smokers. The same survey shows that 62.7 percent of the surveyed teenagers are exposed to cigarette advertisement on TV or in movies.

Tobacco companies are increasingly targeting children — their source of income for decades to come. While the government discourages smoking through its packaging policy, the Industry Ministry’s tobacco industry road map 2015 states the goal of doubling the production of cigarettes — to 524.2 billion a year — by 2020.

“The road map is focused on raising the production of mild tobacco, so it is clearly targeting children, because mild cigarettes are smaller in size, with more feminine and slimmer packaging,” University of Indonesia public health expert Hasbullah Thabrany said.

Since only 2.7 percent of Indonesian women smoke, the more feminine packaging appears to be aimed at the largely untapped female market.

“The industry is really smart in targeting children and the youth. That is why we need plain packaging,” said Tara Singh Bam, regional advisor for the Asia Pacific tobacco control program at the International Union Against Tuberculosis and Lung Disease.

The use of plain packaging is catching on around the world as countries try to protect their young generation. Fourteen countries have laws mandating plain packaging, including Australia, the UK, France, Hungary, Slovenia, Singapore, Canada, New Zealand, Sweden, Finland and South Africa.

But not all have enforced those laws, with Singapore expecting to start enforcing plain packaging by the end of this year.

“It will always be opposed by the tobacco industry. Take for instance Australia, which won two lawsuits filed by the industry, one at the WTO and the other at the constitutional court,” National Commission on Tobacco member Kartono Muhammad said.

Indonesia’s largest tobacco producer, PT HM Sampoerna, said plain packaging would not be effective in deterring smokers.

“More than three years after taking effect in Australia, plain packaging has failed to meet its stated goal of reducing smoking,” Sampoerna regulatory affairs, international trade and communications head Elvira Lianita said.

According to her, Australian government data suggested that smoking may have actually increased in the first full year of plain packaging in states representing 95 percent of the population.

However, an Australian government review on the implementation of plain packaging concluded that the plain packaging rule had begun to achieve its public health objectives of reducing smoking and exposure to tobacco smoke and that it was expected to continue to do so.

The Health Ministry is lobbying for the government to follow Australia. “But it might be a bit difficult, because to implement plain packaging would require a government regulation, which is an inter-ministerial process,” the ministry’s law department head, Barlian, said.

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