By Alvin Darlanika Soedarjo
JAKARTA: A new video of a smoking Indonesian toddler has emerged to shock health experts and provide further graphic illustration of the Southeast Asian country's growing addiction to tobacco.
The parents of a two-year-old boy seen smoking in a clip posted on The Sun newspaper's website are to be investigated, Indonesian officials said after the video drew worldwide attention.
Chubby Ardi Rizal laughs and responds to the adults around him as he sits on his plastic tricycle and inhales deeply from frequent drags on a cigarette.
His father reportedly gave him his first cigarette when he was 18 months old and now he smokes 40 a day. His mother says he beats his head against the wall unless he gets nicotine, but his father insists he is "healthy".
Child Protection Ministry official Heru Kasidi said the family would be investigated for what would be considered a clear case of child abuse in many countries.
It's the second time this year Indonesia has been embarrassed by such media coverage.
Another video was posted on the Internet last month showing an Indonesian boy aged about four puffing on a locally made clove cigarette, blowing smoke rings and swearing with the encouragement of adults.
Weak regulations - Indonesia is the only country in Southeast Asia not to have signed the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control - have enabled tobacco companies to target young Indonesians with advertising and events promotions.
US singer Kelly Clarkson dropped tobacco sponsorship for her Jakarta concert in April after anti-smoking groups protested on the grounds that she was effectively encouraging her young fans to smoke.
Other artists such as Jamiroquai, Anggun, Incubus and James Blunt have allowed their Indonesian shows to be used as vehicles for tobacco marketing.
Anti-smoking activists and health experts say Indonesia is a paradise for the tobacco industry, which has been aggressively expanding sales in the country of about 240 million people.
"The regulations on the tobacco industry in Indonesia are weak. They protect the shareholders in the industry more than the people," activist Kartono Mohamad said.
"The people in Indonesia are fighting alone against the tobacco industry, the government and the policy makers. It's one against three."
Blow to anti-tobacco activists
According to the World Health Organisation, cigarette consumption in the Southeast Asian archipelago soared 47 percent in the 1990s.
Almost 70 percent of men over 20 years of age smoke, and regular smoking among boys aged 15 to 19 increased from 36.8 percent in 1997 to 42.6 percent in 2000.
But anti-smoking initiatives have floundered in the face of the powerful local tobacco industry, which employs scores of thousands of people and generates more than US$6 billion a year for the government.
A bill establishing tobacco as an addictive substance was about to be signed into law last year when officials realised the pertinent clause had been mysteriously deleted. The case is under investigation.
The government has increased excise taxes but prices remain extremely low by international standards, with a pack of 20 costing little more than a dollar.
Even so, studies have shown that poor families spend more on cigarettes than on books and education.
In another blow to anti-tobacco activists, lawmakers have strongly opposed a plan to cut cigarette production by five percent to about 248 billion sticks this year on the grounds that it would hurt local producers.
Foreign makers like British American Tobacco and Philip Morris have long recognised the opportunities in Indonesia.
In March, Philip Morris's local unit, PT HM Sampoerna, the country's largest producer, announced a net profit increase of 31 percent to 5.08 trillion rupiah US$548.64 million) last year.
In the absence of tough government regulations Muslim clerics recently issued a fatwa against smoking.
But analysts said the religious edict was likely to have about as much effect as regulations banning smoking in bars and restaurants, which are widely ignored.
"More and more Indonesian children have become victims of the cigarette industry," Indonesian Child Protection Commission chairman Hadi Supeno said.
"There are many children under five years of age who have started smoking. A decade ago, the average age of beginner smokers was 19 but a recent study found that the average is seven."