Minister in hot water for encouraging smoking

Minister in hot water for encouraging smoking
Men smoke cigarettes in Jakarta. Indonesia has one of the highest smoking rates worldwide.

With the Health Ministry stepping up efforts to reduce tobacco use in the country, Social Affairs Minister Khofifah Indar Parawansa has drawn criticism for her decision to hand out cigarettes to leaders of the Orang Rimba, an indigenous community located in the Bukit Duabelas National Park (TNBD) in Jambi.

Khofifah visited the indigenous group on March 13 and in addition to cigarettes distributed food and clothing.

The minister handed out the items following the recent deaths of 11 Orang Rimba figures from alleged starvation due to the conversion of land into production forests.

"I offer my condolences. May the families [of the victims] be granted strength," she said during a meeting with community elders.

"Here, I also bring cigarettes. I see that the tumenggung [clan leader] really likes cigarettes."

Outraged by the action, the Indonesian Consumers Foundation (YLKI) and anti-tobacco activists are planning to sue Khofifah.

"It contradicts the basic economic principle. It actually makes people poor because [she] distributed a product that makes people poor," Tulus Abadi of the YLKI said on Friday.

By distributing the cigarettes, the minister also violated Government Regulation (PP) No. 109/2012 on tobacco control, according to the YLKI.

Article 35 of the regulation mandates that the government control the promotion of tobacco by refraining from distributing free cigarettes, or allowing discounts on cigarettes or other tobacco products.

Responding to the criticism, Khofifah said she had gifted the cigarettes as a symbol of her respect for the culture of the Orang Rimba.

"It's better [for the critics] to go to the area because every culture has its own tradition. Not everything should be seen from the perspective of Jakartans," she said on Tuesday.

Azas Tigor Nainggolan of the Advocates' Solidarity Movement for Tobacco Control (SAPTA) said that respect for local practices could not be used to justify Khofifah's actions.

"We applaud her visit to the tribal community. But we disagree with the way she did it," he said on Friday.

"This shows that she doesn't understand the rules and regulations."

If Khofifah declines to issue an apology, the YLKI and SAPTA will proceed with the filing of a lawsuit.

"We will file a lawsuit at the Central Jakarta State Court to demand an apology," Tigor said.

The two groups also demanded that Health Minister Nila F. Moeloek reprimand Khofifah for her oversight.

"We're asking Nila not to apply a double standard. When Maritime Affairs and Fisheries Minister Susi Pudjiastuti was caught smoking, she was rebuked [by Nila].

"We are now criticising Nila's silence [over Khofifah's action]," YLKI chairman Sudaryatmo said during a press briefing on Friday.

Khofifah said she would stand firm despite the threat of litigation.

"We have to respect [their right to file a lawsuit]. I would just ask them to go to the field and experience the local wisdom [for themselves]," she told reporters on Friday.

Indonesia continually ranks among the countries with the highest smoking rates worldwide.

Some 62 million people, or one-fourth of the nation's population, are smokers.

Combined with low levels of income and education, the cost of tobacco use has resulted in wasted household income in six out of every 10 families.

Worse, smoking cuts the life expectancy of an Indonesian citizen by an average of 10 years.

The risk of heart disease halves just one year after a smoker quits, while the risk returns to normal levels five to 15 years after a smoker quits.

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