In most western countries the Marlboro Man rode off wheezing into the sunset years ago, but in Indonesia he’s riding high into a new dawn.
The country’s massive population and lax laws still offer a bonanza to big tobacco.
The Marlboro Man is alive and well, adorning bill boards around Indonesia.
David Stanford of the Indonesia Consumers Foundation says “from the tobacco company’s perspective Indonesia is a paradise”.
It’s estimated that more than 80 million Indonesians smoke. Many favour clove cigarettes known as kreteks. They are immensely popular among locals.
In 2005 Philip Morris, the world’s biggest tobacco corporation, bought Sampoerna, one of Indonesia’s tobacco giants, and last year it launched the world’s first clove-flavoured Marlboro.
So proud is Sampoerna of its legacy and history that it’s established a tobacco museum. It’s a popular tourist attraction in the east Java city of Surabaya, complete with guides offering personal tours and telling the story of how a nation became hooked on kreteks.
With more nicotine and tar than regular tobacco, kreteks account for 90 per cent of the hundreds of billions of cigarettes sold in Indonesia each year.
As the museum guide recounts, smoking cloves started as a health tonic.
“A man who had problems with his throat, mixed tobacco with cloves and it healed him and that’s how the kretek began,” the guide said.
There is even a curiosity cabinet dedicated to the ghoulish health warnings Sampoerna’s cigarettes are forced to display when they are sold in countries like Australia.
In Indonesia there are precious few rules and regulations. And unlike in western countries there are fewer restrictions on advertising. Television, cinemas, magazines, billboards, sporting events and concerts all flog tobacco.
In recent years, pop stars Mariah Carey and Alicia Keys have had their names associated with cigarettes. Marketing campaigns aggressively target the young as companies strive to increase sales.
In Indonesia advertising encourages young people to believe that smoking is ‘cool!’ Ujang Widodo is typical of millions of Indonesians who took up smoking as a teenager.
“There were cigarette advertisements shown during a movie show at the soccer field one night,” he said.
“I bought one pack first, then continued buying. I felt cool, like I had authority and style. It never crossed my mind that there was disease associated with smoking.”
Now in his mid 40s, Ujang is suffering from lung cancer and his future looks bleak.
“My life is uncertain,” he said.
“My fear is that I’ll leave my young child. One of my children is still very young.”
Every year 400,000 Indonesians die from smoking-related diseases but the cynics argue Indonesia cannot afford to give up smoking. The government collects billions in taxes and the tobacco industry is one of the country’s major employers.
Along with Zimbabwe, Indonesia is the only place that still allows cigarette advertising on television.
One of Indonesia’s religious leaders, Cholil Ridwan, says the government’s refusal to act is “evil”.
“Cigarette advertising is an invasion of Indonesia’s young,” he said.
“Cigarette advertisements enter homes through television. They are very extravagant. This is a crime from the perspective of Islam’s teaching.”
The new boss of Philip Morris in Indonesia John Gledhill, who has just moved from Australia, says his conscience is clear.
“I work for a company which I believe not only follows the law by the letter but also the spirit as well,” he said.
However his claim that the aim of Philip Morris’s advertising is to persuade existing smokers to switch to his brand is challenged by anti-smoking crusader Matthew Myers.
“Philip Morris has no credibility when it argues that all it’s trying to do is switch adult smokers from one brand to another,” he said.
“It’s exactly the same lie they told in the US and other countries until their own documents exposed that that simply isn’t the case.”
Mr Myers, who is the president of the Campaign for Tobacco Free-Kids in the USA, has some powerful allies in the US.
He was a special guest of US President Barack Obama at the White House recently when the President struck an historic blow against the tobacco industry in the US by launching tough new laws.
Yet the President’s brief boyhood home Indonesia remains, along with North Korea, the only country to shun the World Health Organisation’s treaty on Tobacco Control, a treaty that would impose severe restrictions on advertising and ban tobacco sales to youngsters.
“Millions of Indonesians don’t have to die prematurely from tobacco use. If only the government would stand up for the people of Indonesia - not for the tobacco companies - and say the lives of Indonesia’s kids are worth as much as the lives of kids in Australia, the US and the rest of the world. Because the tobacco industry will never do that,” Mr Myers said.
Geoff Thompson’s report ’80 Million a Day’ screens tonight on Foreign Correspondent. 8PM ABC 1