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Opposition to House’s Kretek Protection Bid Heats Up

Jakarta. Stern opposition continues to mount among government officials and anti-smoking activists against a bid by the House of Representatives to recognize kretek, Indonesia’s clove-flavored cigarettes, as an item of cultural heritage.

The move, in amendments being proposed for the 2010 Cultural Heritage Law, would effectively make it harder for the government to impose restrictions on kretek sales and advertising, and in fact oblige the state to support the manufacture and promotion of the cancer sticks.

“Not every traditional custom must be developed and preserved,” Education Minister Anies Baswedan said on Wednesday, “especially when it would condone smoking among students. We definitely disagree [with the House’s proposal].”

The Health Ministry has also spoken out against the move, saying it threatens to undermine the government’s ongoing efforts to educate the Indonesian public – a population where three-fifths of adult males smoke – about the dangers of smoking.

“By being including in the bill, kretek would no longer be considered dangerous [to health],” said Lily Sulityowati, the ministry’s director of non-communicable diseases.

Kartono Muhammad, the chairman of the Association of Indonesian Public Health Experts’ Tobacco Control Support Center (TCSC), said that if passed into legislation, the proposal would be “a setback to the country’s efforts at tobacco control.”

Kartono told the Jakarta Globe on Wednesday that promoting kretek would encourage and justify smoking among minors across the country.

“Passing the bill is similar to poisoning the next generations,” he said.

One in three Indonesian youths aged 13 to 15 smokes regularly, with half of them addicted to nicotine, according to the 2014 Global Tobacco Adult Survey.

“Another risk to this plan is that kretek will get special treatment in sales and advertising,” Kartono said.

He added he suspected the newly announced proposal was an attempt to head off a possible tobacco excise hike. Indonesia already has among the lowest cigarette prices in the world, with the excise accounting for 46 percent of the total price of a pack of smokes – far less than the level of 70 percent recommended by the World Health Organization.

“There may be some wheeling and dealing going on between legislators and cigarette producers,” Kartono said.

The timing of the House’s proposal has raised more than a few eyebrows, coming just as the cigarette producers’ association, or Gappri railed against a government proposal to raise the tobacco excise. The group claimed on Tuesday that producers had been forced to lay off 15,000 workers this year as demand weakens, and that any increase in prices would lead to further job losses.

Vice President Jusuf Kalla has also expressed his disapproval of the promotion of kretek in the draft, but said he was confident it would not make it through to the final legislation.

“It’s just a draft that will be discussed at the House. Of course kretek shouldn’t be included,” he told reporters at his office on Tuesday.

Kartono argued that leaving kretek off the list of cultural heritage would not have any negative impacts on clove farmers or the tobacco industry as a whole.

“Smoking kretek is only a habit – a very bad one – not a culture,” he said.

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