Jakarta – Few would still remember when an article from 2009 that classified tobacco as an addictive substance was removed from the final draft of the health bill that would be signed by the president.
The article was later reinstated, but nobody was held responsible for the criminal act as the police dropped their probe into the case.
Efforts to eliminate the article, however, continued through judicial review motions. That the article stands until today only shows the wisdom of the Constitutional Court in turning down the petitions.
There seems to be no end to the debate over the issue, as long as policymakers consider the tobacco industry an unchangeable source of state revenue or too big to ignore, regardless of the harm it causes. Anti-tobacco groups have therefore warned the public of a possible repeat of the foul play in 2009 now that the House of Representatives are deliberating the omnibus bill on health.
But even if such a conspiracy is absent, the House-initiated bill and its inventory of issues submitted by the government to the House speak volumes of reluctance to get tough with tobacco. The government does insist that tobacco contains addictive substances, just like narcotics, but is mum about the mechanisms to restrict its distribution.
The government's lack of commitment, if not double standard, has been evident in its refusal to ratify the United Nations Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC), making us among only seven non-parties to the international anti-tobacco treaty.
The omnibus bill is in general generous to the tobacco industry as it maintains tobacco advertising on TV and in print media, albeit in a limited manner. The bill also says that office buildings and public places located in smoke-free zones are required to provide smoking areas, which marks a setback from the prevailing Health Law which does not stipulate such a requirement.
The government will continue to befriend the tobacco industry. According to Statistic Indonesia (BPS), the industry contributed 1.7 percent to Indonesia's gross domestic product (GDP) in 2019 only, mainly through taxes, export revenues and job creation. The official data also found the industry created about 6.3 million jobs in the same year.
However, facts show that tobacco does more harm than good. The cost of its impact on health far outweighs the benefit it generates to the economy. The economic burden of smoking in the country reached Rp 531.8 trillion (US$35.6 billion) in 2017, or about 3.6 times greater than the tobacco excise revenue of that year. By reducing the number of smokers, the government can alleviate this burden on the healthcare system and free up resources for other important health issues.
According to the World Health Organization, tobacco claims around 8 million lives every year, with many of these deaths being premature. In Indonesia the fatality rate stood at 290,000 annually, which certainly bodes ill for a country poised to boost productivity to become a high-income economy by 2045.
In fact, the government has taken measures to discourage smokers. Quite regularly the government has increased cigarette excise, but the disincentive policy fails to live up to expectations. The 2021 Global Adults Tobacco Survey (GATS) discovered that within a decade, from 2011 to 2021, the number of smokers increased by at least 8 million people.
More worryingly, the prevalence of young smokers aged 18 below has been on the rise from 8.8 percent in 2016 to 9.1 in 2018 and 10.7 in 2019. BPS has warned the figure could reach a staggering 16 percent by 2030 if the government fails to reduce tobacco consumption through intervention policies.
The omnibus bill on health deliberation should therefore provide the government a new opportunity to put public health behind the economy if it really wants to implement its responsibility to protect the people from a possible smoking pandemic.
The nation's hope for a healthier Indonesia should not go up in smoke.