Youth Empowerment: Manipulations of Tobacco Industry

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  • By: Nafsiah Mboi, written on May 31, 2020.

    “… the companies* have marketed and sold their lethal product with zeal, with deception, with a single-minded focus on their financial success, and without regard for the human tragedy or social costs that success exacted."

    (*Nine cigarette manufacturers and two tobacco trade associations)

    -From the 17 August 2006 ruling of Judge Gladys Kessler, US District Court At the conclusion of 5 years of litigation  US vs Philip Morris.


    In 1988, the member states of the World Health Assembly called for a celebration of World No Tobacco Day on May 31 each year. This week we join the world community with a focus on helping our young people recognize and reject the subtle and manipulative tactics of the cigarette industry working to expand their market at the price of the lives and money of our people, particularly our young people.

    Today in Indonesia we have large numbers of young people, probably most, being raised where it is easier to take up smoking than resist it. They see it at home; they inhale it in the community; they are wooed by street sellers; and pressured by the advertising and public relations of the tobacco industry. I believe it is important to work with and through government mechanisms (executive and legislative at all levels) to help protect our young people from exposure to tobacco smoke and exploitation by the tobacco industry. We also need to significantly increase our efforts to empower our young people to take action, as is their right, to protect their health by turning away from smoking and encouraging others to do the same. To do this effectively, they need more than just anti-smoking chants and slogans. They need to understand the issues.

    Children need to learn they have rights such as the right to live, good health, and the right to have their opinions heard. And they need to learn to recognize and resist when they are being pressured or manipulated whether by peer pressure, clever advertising, or seductive special offers as happens again and again related to smoking throughout their growing-up years.

    The right of young people to good health and healthy development are impacted by both direct and passive smoking starting from before birth, especially if one or both parents smoke. The brain of the child growing into adolescence and young adulthood continue development into the early 20s, a process that can be damaged by smoking.  Even if a child him/ herself resists the temptation of smoking, living in a house where one or more adults smoke exposes the growing child to a lifelong risk of the negative effects of passive smoking. In Indonesia, tobacco use (smoking, secondhand smoke, smokeless tobacco) in fact, is the 4th leading risk factor for death. It is the 2nd leading risk factor for men and boys.

    However, health is not the only concern: for many young Indonesians, particularly the poor and near-poor, the financial damage resulting from smoking is often overlooked but can be life-changing. Money goes to buy cigarettes rather than BPJS membership, to buy cigarettes rather than sustaining a good diet, to buy cigarettes rather than saving bit by bit to continue school; buying cigarettes and a family slides into poverty without even noticing.  

    Beyond those “homegrown” characteristics of the environment, we all see something else going on in the market place – the evermore aggressive, diverse, misleading, marketing of cigarettes and the positive portrayal of cigarette manufacturers and the tobacco industry. They are calculating in their use of information and misinformation.

    It is a fact that public health action, public opinion, and court rulings in higher-income countries (Europe and America) have gradually been closing the doors on the markets and methods of the tobacco industry in those areas.

    It is important to remind ourselves and our young people that knowledge of the negative effects of tobacco use in any form goes back more than 200 years! In 1791, British doctors already found that the use of snuffled to increased risk of nose cancer.  By 1912 a connection between smoking and lung cancer was already reported. In 1967 the landmark report of the US Surgeon General, “The Health Consequences of Smoking: A Public Health Service Review” was published highlighting, among other things the link between smoking and both lung cancer and heart disease. 

    It was clearly stated and undeniably documented that individuals, especially the young, families and the government were paying a high price in health care costs and premature mortality on the backs of the commercial prosperity of the tobacco industry. Through the years, the results of studies, meeting recognized standards of scientific investigation have been unanimous – cigarette smoking is harmful to health.

    By the end of the 20th century, the tobacco industry had become a transnational network squeezing the breath and life out of men, women, and young people around the world. The tobacco industry has been calculating and deceptive in its use of information to defend their products and, in many countries like Indonesia, their place in national economies. Failing in other efforts to control the damage, governments and citizen groups in various places turned to the courts to try to bring the tobacco industry under control. 

    In 1999, the US government took nine cigarette manufacturers and two tobacco trade associations to court (the US vs Philip Morris) for deceiving the public about addiction, the health effects of cigarettes, and environmental tobacco smoke. On 17 August  2006, at the conclusion of 5 years of litigation, Judge Gladys Kessler of the US District Court issued her 1,683-page ruling which was blunt and decisive. As quoted at the top of this article, she found the companies had “marketed … their lethal product with zeal, and with deception…”. She said elsewhere that “…the Justice Department … had presented overwhelming evidence of a conspiracy to defraud the public…”    

    I urge anti-smoking activists of all ages in Indonesia to remember this ruling. It is clear that the same thing is happening in Indonesia. The question now: How must we act? I believe this is a time we need to explore legal options to bring suit against the tobacco industry and hold them accountable for the damage done to the health and lives of the whole Indonesian family, especially our children. 

    Empowerment of young people to protect themselves and as allies in the larger fight with the tobacco industry can grow with the development of a good information base, role models, practice exercises related to smoking but also related to other fields.   Young people need to learn to be critical in evaluating the information they receive, strategic in choosing their battles, and confident in their own decisions.  They need to recognize when they are being manipulated for the benefit of others.

    In conclusion, let me emphasize that our effort which today is related to young people learning to protect themselves from smoking is not a “one-note song”.  It will benefit each one for the rest of their lives in community and work settings and will give them a firmer base for their adult lives and for child-rearing when the moment comes.



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