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Indonesian smokers.

THE day I met Kadek he was sitting on the well-worn black saddle of his 50cc Yamaha, shades perched on his nose and obligatory Djarum smouldering on his bottom lip. "Transport?" he asked; the signature call of Kuta Boys who earn pin money from scooting tourists, frugal businessmen and journalists through the traffic-clogged streets of this fabled Bali beach resort.

They have perfected the art invented by wizened old rickshaw drivers in Shanghai, and copied by Parisian taxi drivers, of smoking while driving and talking, and sometimes eating and drinking too.

My trip with Kadek turned out to be more than a taxi ride for a few Rupiah; it swiftly became a valuable lesson in the vagaries of smoking in Indonesia.

It turns out, Kadek explained energetically through mouthfuls of sweet smoke blown back at me as I clung on to the rear quarter of the saddle, that Indonesia has stuck two fingers up at the rest of the world and the anti-smoking lobby.

The country is re-living the 1950s and 60s in America when tobacco was king. There are posters encouraging smoking in which clean-cut families are all having a jolly nice time sharing cigarettes. The Kuta Boys are the new Marlboro Men, with Yamahas for ponies. Far from there being any shame in the habit, there is an overwhelming sense of pride.

In the way we in the west are classed by our designer luggage or shoes, so the Indonesians rank each other's status by the brand of cigarette smoked.

Packets are placed clearly on bars and cafes, label up, to let everybody know where the smoker is in the pecking order.

Even those with little spending power are in on the act. Those with barely enough money for the bare necessities, who struggle to bring home a full bag of groceries, somehow always seem to have cigarettes to smoke.

More Indonesians seem to be smoking than ever before, partly helped by the fact that they have slightly more disposable income than previously, although we are talking only a few Rupiah more, rather than windfalls.

There also seems to be more choice. A trip down to the local Circle K (a 7-Eleven-style minimart) reveals a buffet of tobacco products that simply was not here a few years ago. You can buy imports such as Camel, locally licensed brands like Marlboro, and Indonesian cigarettes including Sampoerna and Gudang Garam.

Djarum is the third biggest cigarette company in Indonesia yet at the moment, according to the youthful tobacco aficionados, also the hippest. Sales of Djarum have rarely, if ever, been higher. At traffic lights on Jalan Legian, Kadek stopped, not for a red light at which halting still seems optional in Bali but to say hi to his girlfriend. And as he did so he slapped the side of his petrol tank to show her the new livery. It was emblazoned with a fresh Djarum sticker. Indonesian Marlboro Man is as commercialised as his Wild West predecessor.

That day Kadek was as proud of his sticker as he was of his motorbike, and arguably more so than of his girlfriend who returned his indifference with a puff of her own smoke.

And here is another crucial change. Although smoking in Indonesia is still predominantly a male preserve, women are catching on and lighting up. For youngsters in big cities, especially girls under 25, cigarettes are as crucial to the image as a designer handbag or heels.

Later, in the vague early hours at a notorious nightclub in nearby Legian, called Double Six, I was approached by a Javanese girl who asked me for a light. She was wide-eyed with surprise when I regretfully confessed I had neither match nor lighter.

"Here in Indonesia everybody smokes," she said with a sly smile. "You must be a stranger, not an expat."

After she went back to the dancefloor, the barman leaned over and told me: "You will never get a girl here if you don't have the right cigarettes and the right lighter.

"When you go clubbing and drinking then you should have a cigarette in your hand, even if you don't smoke."

Crushed, I looked back towards the girl to see her gyrating with a Frenchman who was eagerly showing her his shiny silver Zippo.

"If I were you I would go for the chocolate-flavoured cigarettes, they are the latest big thing," said the barman.

And he wasn't joking. As well as passionate smokers, Indonesians are also sweet-tooths, so the marketing whiz who recently lassoed the nation's two major addictions together into one thin stick is to be praised.

The other huge factor here is price, which is artificially low. Or maybe cigarettes in Europe and America are priced artificially high and this is the real value? Many expat friends in Bali instantly re-ignited their previously abandoned habits on arrival. How can you argue with less than 50p (80? US) for a pack of 20 Marlboro?

All this pro-smoke rhetoric does not mean, however, that the anti-smoking lobby is silent. Indonesians are known for expressing their opinions freely among friends and family but the concept of damning the habit publicly is years away, if indeed it will ever come to pass.

There is almost no noticeable government regulation on advertising, except when bad taste is concerned and the possibility of offending Muslim sensitivities. Kadek and his pals were totally unaware and very surprised to learn that tobacco advertising has been banned in other countries.

"No more Marlboro Man?" he asked me.

Retired, I replied.

When I mentioned the smoking bans in California, New York City and New South Wales in Australia, he simply did not believe a word I was saying.

Part of the reason for this lack of censorship may lie in the fact that cigarette ads in Indonesia are, undoubtedly, the coolest on TV, and, as they are superb at attracting the next breed of young smoker they are financially very important for both government and private company coffers.

To compound the marketing success, cigarette companies sponsor the best nights in town. Almost any new bar or gallery planning an opening tries to get the ear of the tobacco kings. They usually play ball but often take over the show with branded banners and flags, and plenty of Javanese girls in miniskirts handing out free samples and flyers.

It's blatant and, to western eyes, rather old fashioned, but it works.

Although Bali is not always typical of Indonesia, Kadek's experience and those of the girl and her friends in Double Six are repeated daily across the archipelago, from Sumatra to Flores.

Indonesia is still a haven for smokers. You can smoke practically everywhere. Even if you smoke blatantly under a no-smoking sign in the centre of Jakarta you are unlikely to be noticed. Even the police turn a blind eye and rather than arresting you or giving you a verbal warning they merely sidle up and ask you for a light.

It is not unusual for businessmen to sit down for a meeting, be served coffee (or kopi) and light up around the table. Almost all the hotels still do not have segregated smoking and non-smoking rooms, and in restaurants and cafes it's a free-for-all.

Two San Franciscans dining at Made's Warung, an institution in Seminyak, breathed smoky sighs of relief.

"We're going to extend our stay just so we can have a few more days of smoking outside without being jumped on and beaten up by the cops," they said, (metaphorically, of course).

In the coffee-shops a smoke is as de rigueur as a cup of kopi and in the mornings you half expect Humphrey Bogart to saunter in a white tux after a long night of self abuse, and spark up a St Moritz.

Tastes everywhere are Catholic. Menthol cigarettes have always been popular here, more so than toothpaste if you belief the locals. But they will have to go a long way to outsell the famous Indonesian clove cigarettes which are still among the most smoked here and across South East Asia. They have been popular for years and are still going strong, especially among the older generations.

Also Indonesians are also taking to a relatively new breed--a combo, which is a mix of menthol and clove in one stick. Some cafes are permanently laced with the sweet fumes, as the old Dickensian pubs of London used to be before they were turned into air conditioned wine bars and the smokers were all pushed into the grimy courtyard out the back.

It is hard to see the situation changing because smoking is such a part of Indonesian culture, of society here, but if the mandarins in Jakarta ever begin to favour health over profits their task of changing the minds of this vast nation's population will be daunting and, for my money, is bound to go up in smoke.
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Author:Brace, Matthew
Publication:International News
Geographic Code:9INDO
Date:Aug 1, 2004
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