​The True Smoker: An icon of Indonesia’s refusal to quit lax smoking regulations

Photo illustration. Credit: Ethan Harfenist
Photo illustration. Credit: Ethan Harfenist

This convenience store exclusively displays the “True Smoker” in its window. Photo: Ethan Harfenist

When Indonesia, the world’s third-largest cigarette market, started incorporating graphic warnings on cigarette packs last year, the image lineup seemed pretty standard compared to others used around the globe: blackened lungs, cancerous lips, emphysemic throats, a helpless child being engulfed in smoke by his father’s exhalation.

“I’m optimistic [the campaign] will be effective because smokers will see the spine-tingling graphic warnings,” Deni Kurniawan, the project manager with the Indonesian Institute for Social Development, told the Wall Street Journal last June. 

But one of the new labels — a hardened, mustachioed man inhaling smoke next two ghastly skulls — seemed rather tame by comparison, and people seemed to take notice quickly.

Nowadays, nearly every Indonesian convenience store or warung has collages of these “spine-tingling” warning labels on the cigarette packs lining their shelves. But despite the blackened lungs and exposed throats staring potential customers in the face, many shopkeepers will either sift through the “bad” labels and hand over a packet containing one of the less-offensive warnings, or exclusively advertise the more agreeable images, as in the photo above.

More often than not, it’s the picture of the man and the skulls. 

“Customers prefer this one,” a smiley worker at a 7-Eleven told me last year as I watched her go through at least a dozen packs of Marlboro Lights before handing me a box adorned with his menacing-yet-cool face.

And why wouldn’t they? No horrific images of charred lungs and throats — just a badass Southeast Asian guy apparently relishing the fact that he can smoke and see dead people.

According to a February post by Widyasuti Soerojo of the Southeast Asia Initiative on Tobacco Tax, a survey of 54 sub-districts in seven cities of provinces in Java showed that while pictorial health warnings “created strong reactions from smokers,” a common reaction was to look for packs with no warnings at all (52-96 percent) or — you guessed it — choose “the least scary picture — one which shows a ‘smoking man’ with a skull background” (68-95 percent).

The least-intimidating warning for Indonesia’s smokers has appeared to become the most ubiquitous, by sheer virtue of its harmlessness and the customer’s ability to willfully avoid the more shocking labels. As such, the image itself, coupled with its omnipresence in shops and on billboards, has turned a would-be warning into a de facto cultural icon in some Indonesian circles. 

Take Cipta Croft-Cusworth, the President Director of independent Indonesian toy company GoodGuysNeverWin. Amongst his creations are several lines of weird-as-hell, Indonesia-focused toys: he’s created figurines of Star Wars characters recreated as Indonesians, famous local serial killers and some of the country’s “dead patriots.” 
 

GoodGuysNeverWin President Director Cipta Croft-Cusworth poses with two of his “True Smoker” action figures, along with an e-cigarette for good measure. (Photo via GGNW’s Facebook page
 

But at Cipta’s stall at the most recent BrightSpot Market in Jakarta’s Senayan City Mall, his action figure representation of the smoking skull man, whom he dubbed “Perokok Sejati” (“True Smoker”), was one of his fastest sellers. The figurine is currently listed as “temporarily out of stock” on his company’s Facebook page. 

“When the anti-cigarette campaigns started, he [“True Smoker”] quickly became the topic of discussion. Why no t-shirt? Why a mustache? What are those skulls doing? I rolled with that by putting him into context,” he said, referring to the fact that his version of “True Smoker” features the man from the warning label in a towel and taking a traditional Indonesian mandi. 

Even though he turned what is supposed to be a tobacco warning into a campy action figure, Cipta was quick to note that his toy isn’t celebrating or condoning cigarette smoking.

“I’m drawing attention to the fact that it’s not a very good deterrent, because he looks like a ‘dude,’” he said. “Making his figurine is only a reaction to his iconic status.”

Perhaps tellingly, the fact that a warning label even has what could be considered “iconic status” highlights some of the shortcomings of Indonesia’s tobacco control measures. 

Despite the fact that this exact warning label appears in neighboring Thailand, even Indonesian warning labels with the more vivid photos are still lacking in comparison. Not only are the pictures smaller than those used in neighboring Malaysia and Singapore, almost half of Indonesia’s warning images are blocked off by the country’s required tax sticker. Furthermore, as soon as one flips a pack’s top, the warning essentially vanishes, revealing a neat row of smokes. 

While the labels have had some success in curbing tobacco use among young people, tobacco activists in Indonesia are quick to point out that the country’s powerful cigarette companies are still trying to skirt tighter regulations and work around existing restrictions to promote their deadly products.

“[We’ve found that], the pictures that have warning labels are effective for young people [who haven’t started], but for those who already smoke, it doesn’t have any effect at all,” said Kartono Muhammad, of Indonesia’s National Commission of Tobacco Control. “Interference from the tobacco industry is very strong [since] the industry is very powerful.”

But it seems as if enforcing warnings are only half the battle: the industry is so powerful that the Indonesian government has made moves to include kretek, the country’s homemade clove-infused cigarettes that are thought to be even worse than regular smokes, on a list of Indonesian “cultural heritage” products that would protect their sale and promote their distribution. 

Kartono said his organization is currently fighting the bill, but said that it’s an uphill battle. 

“[The industry] has people in the government who are always on their side,” he said. I’m suspicious — there is no proof that they give money — but they are always on the side of the industry.” 

According to a 2011 survey by the World Health Organization, 67.4 percent of men, 4.5 percent of women and 36.1 percent, or 61.4 million people, use tobacco in Indonesia. In her foreword to the report, former Health Minister Nafsiah Mboi cited “several efforts” over the last 15 years to curb tobacco use in Indonesia: increases in taxes, more smoke-free areas and the introduction of warning labels.

But last month, when 11 member countries of the WHO in Southeast Asia signed the Dili Declaration in the East Timorese capital to commit to reduce tobacco use, all eyes were on Indonesia due to the fact that it is the only country in the region to have not yet ratified the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control. 

While she said that Indonesia was serious about curbing tobacco use, current Health Minister Nila Moeloek notably declined to comment on whether Indonesia had plans to ratify the FCTC at all. 

“[The WHO] wants [Indonesia] to address the [low] price and tax on cigarettes so that cigarettes are not [affordable] to children,” she said as quoted by the Jakarta Globe. “So although we still haven’t signed, such efforts are being done. We realize how important it is.”

Daniel Ziv, a documentarian-turned-anti-tobacco activist best known for his award-winning film Jalanan, said the Indonesian government needed to step up its efforts if it really wanted to enact any real change and combat the country’s extremely persuasive tobacco industry. 

“Until Indonesia’s political leadership gets serious about enforcing not just the letter of the law but the spirit of it too — so far they are enforcing neither — tobacco control measures will have no real impact in the country,” he said in an email. “In reality, smoking rates in Indonesia have increased, not decreased, since these regulations have been put in place. That tells us everything we need to know about their seriousness.”


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