News / Asia

Indonesian Court Hears Pro-Tobacco Testimony

Tobacco on display at a recent international tobacco exhibition in Jakarta
Tobacco on display at a recent international tobacco exhibition in Jakarta
Angela Dewan

Indonesia has banned smoking in public places and is trying to curb tobacco advertising. Yet the idea that tobacco is an addictive substance is being challenged in its Constitutional Court. Over the past two months the court has heard from officials and experts who say tobacco is not harmful, does not cause lung cancer, and can even be beneficial to health.

A health law passed in 2009 that recognizes tobacco as an addictive substance has come under scrutiny in Indonesia, where the tobacco industry has evaded such labeling in the past.

Experts told the Constitutional Court this week that a clause defining tobacco as addictive discriminates against tobacco farmers, while others earlier testified that tobacco is not addictive.

Saldi Isra, a professor of constitutional law at Andalas University in West Sumatra, told the court the clause is unconstitutional.

Isra testifies that the constitution says everyone has the right to a livelihood. And discrimination of a group of people, in this case, tobacco farmers, is against the constitution.

Bambang Sukarno, a lawmaker from a tobacco-growing region in central Java, asked for the judicial review of the law.

If the court upholds the clause, tobacco companies could face a total ban on advertising. Already alcohol is recognized as addictive and advertising for liquor has been illegal here for 10 years.

Sukarno and his supporters say that tobacco is not technically addictive but that it contains an addictive substance, namely nicotine. Witnesses who support him have testified that tobacco can be manipulated to be less addictive and even beneficial to health.

Dr. Sutiman Bambang Sumitro, a molecular biology professor at the University of Brawijaya in East Java, told the court last month that through nanochemistry, tobacco could be manipulated and used to treat illnesses, including cancer.

He says any toxin can be modified to benefit health. It also is possible to eliminate free radicals to reduce health risks to smokers and passive smokers.

Aris Widodo, a professor of pharmacology at the same university, told the court that he had never heard of anyone dying from smoking. He said smoking could eliminate anxiety, sharpen concentration and calm the nerves.  

Widodo says that stress is a major factor in illnesses that often are blamed on tobacco. But stress can easily be overcome by smoking cigarettes, rather than using other expensive drugs.

This controversy over the addictiveness of tobacco began when the clause in question mysteriously was eliminated from the final draft of the health bill in 2009, raising suspicions that the government was bowing to the tobacco industry.

The incident echoes a controversy in 1992, when lawmakers omitted the same clause after lobbying by tobacco companies.   

The Health Ministry maintains the missing clause in 2009 was merely an oversight.

Dr. Hakim Sorimuda Pohan, a Democratic Party member who helped draft the law, thinks the tobacco lobby is again behind the push to have the clause omitted. He also says the addictiveness of tobacco is undeniable.

“Tobacco as addictive is basic science, in medical science," Pohan said. "No one says it’s not addictive. If anyone says that, they’re really lying. Basic science rejects it.”

Political maneuvering and court battles over tobacco are not unique to Indonesia. For instance, in 1994, seven tobacco company executives testified in the U.S. Congress they did not believe tobacco was an addictive substance.

But thousands of international studies show tobacco is addictive and harmful to health.

A number of studies, such as one by the U.S. National Institute of Drug Abuse, have shown that nicotine is one of the most addictive substances. Some studies say it is more addictive than heroin, cocaine and alcohol.

The World Health Organization says tobacco kills about half its users, or more than five million people annually. The WHO says it is linked to number of cancers, such as lung, bladder, breast and colon cancer, as well as heart disease and stroke.

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