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The Childhood Smoking Epidemic in Indonesia

3p is proud to partner with the Presidio Graduate School’s Managerial Marketing course on a blogging series about “sustainable marketing.” This post is part of that series. To follow along, please click here.

By John Paul Chulliyil

In the 80’s I would always see an ad of a cowboy smoking a cigarette with the sunset behind him.  I learned that he was the Marlboro Man, a symbol of what a cool smoker would look like.  Marketing professionals would agree that an ad like the Marlboro Man is an iconic image that has helped sell millions of cigarettes. Thankfully the United States also understands smoking is an epidemic and therefore has created stricter guidelines and harsher policies for tobacco companies.  Though there are still ads in certain magazines, it has become difficult to sell tobacco due to higher taxes for cigarettes and ad campaigns such as thetruth.  Tobacco companies realize the difficulties and have been focusing their energy in other parts of the world, notably Indonesia.

Indonesia is a developing country known for its spicy food and tourism, but it is also known for its tobacco usage.  Indonesia is the fifth largest cigarette market by volume in the world and the home of the kretek.  One of the main reasons why tobacco companies focus on selling their products to Indonesia is because its government is the only country in Asia that did not sign the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control.  With that in mind, companies have a free for all on whom they sell to.  Unlike the United States, where an average cigarette pack costs about $10.28, in Indonesia it costs a couple of cents for a cigarette and about a $1.00 for a pack.  The tobacco companies have influence on the Indonesian government because they are one of the largest contributors to government revenue and employ thousands of workers at the factories.  As a result, the Indonesian government puts no real restriction on cigarette makers or their products.  It’s been such a big success that the World Tobacco Association has had two consecutive conferences for companies all over the world to promote their tobacco to the Indonesian community.  Though there has been backlash from the locals against tobacco agencies it has done little to advocate for stricter laws.

The world became aware of how alarming cigarette smoking has become when a journalist put up a YouTube video of a 2 year old baby smoking cigarettes.  Even though the child has stopped smoking, the government hasn’t changed its view on tobacco selling.  Among Indonesian youth ages 13 to 15, 54% smoke and over 80% of the youth are exposed to second hand smoke.   Companies never admit to it, but many believe that tobacco companies specifically market to youth by creating certain ads with celebrities in them, organizing concerts for the youth, creating ads that show off a certain lifestyle that kids would like, and selling around schools.  I find it to be ethically wrong for companies to promote their cigarettes through these marketing campaigns, specifically promoting their products to kids.

On one hand, from a marketing perspective, tobacco agencies like Philip Morris have figured out a way to capitalize in a heavily saturated market.  On the other hand, the issue seems to be an ethical dilemma for the Indonesian government, a governing body that has no incentive to intervene on behalf of its citizens.  I believe the root of the problem is the amount of control the government is giving the companies and until that is resolved, the tobacco companies will always be on top overpowering the government and doing what they want.  What other viable alternatives are there for the country to work with other than relying heavily on the tobacco companies?  Do you believe that government should take control of the issue and create restrictions or should it be up to the individual to make the decision of lighting that cigarette? 

Want to learn more about Presidio and this project? Click here.