Indonesia's smoking epidemic – an old problem getting younger

Many male smokers now start their habit at age seven, with activists blaming weak regulations and the tobacco industry

Eght-year-old Aldi Ilham smokes a cigarette at his house in Sukabumi, Indonesia. Ilham started smoking when he was four. Photograph: Bayu Aji/EPA
A cloud of smoke hovers above his small frame, a cigarette dangling at his lips. As he blows rings high above his head, 14-year-old Faisan explains why he has just bought his third cigarette of the day. "When I have a problem to solve – and I have so many problems at school – I have a smoke," he says. "It relaxes me and makes me forget."

In most other countries, the fact Faisan is an underage and regular smoker would be startling. But in Indonesia, he is but one of thousands across the archipelago – a nation of islands where nearly 70% of men aged 20 and over smoke, and where the average starting age has fallen from 19 a decade ago to just seven today, activists say.

There is no minimum age limit on smoking or buying cigarettes in Indonesia, which explains why videos of smoking Indonesian toddlers exist on YouTube – such as that of two-year-old Sumatran Ardi Rizal, who regularly smoked 40 cigarettes a day before undergoing treatment.

Last week, another child – this one, eight-year-old Ilham on the island of Java – made local headlines for smoking two packs a day and flying into a rage if he couldn't have his fix. "He spends his whole day smoking and playing," his father told local news agency Antara, adding that Ilham, who started smoking aged four, would "smash glass windows or whatever's around" if he wasn't allowed to smoke.

Although half of Indonesia's population survives on less than £1.20 a day, cigarettes are the second-largest household expenditure after food, according to official statistics. "Smoking is a rite of passage here," explains office clerk Andre Kuntaro, 23. "If you don't smoke, it's like you're not Indonesian."

According to the National Commission for Children's Protection, nearly 2% of Indonesian children start smoking at the age of four. The World Health Organisation says the practice has risen 600% in the past 40 years in this nation of 240 million, where, despite increased taxes on tobacco, a standard pack of 20 costs only around 75p, with many street stalls selling single sticks for as little as 1,000 rupiah (about seven pence).

Anti-smoking activists have long pointed to Indonesia's feeble industry regulations, as well as its failure to ratify the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, as proof that the government is doing too little to tackle a massive problem.

"For the umpteenth time, the Indonesian government is reminded by these child smokers that smoking addiction in Indonesia has already reached full alert, is real and needs further handling," said Arist Merdeka Sirait of the National Commission for Children's Protection. The commission aims to sue all cigarette manufacturers that market their products in Indonesia and has called for a ban on all tobacco advertisements, as well as for producers to provide health facilities to treat nicotine addiction.


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