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Class Action Lawsuit Targets Indonesian Government, Tobacco Companies

An employee counts cigarettes before packing them in Sidoarjo, Indonesia's East Java province April 7, 2010.
JAKARTA - In Indonesia, one of the world’s last bastions of unrestricted cigarette smoking, one out of five people smoke. Even children are picking up the habit. The country’s child protection commission is now planning a class action lawsuit against the government and tobacco companies for failing to protect kids from getting hooked.

Eight-year-old Aldi Ilham from Sukabumi, West Java, first started smoking when he was four years old. Instead of going to school he would help park cars to earn change for cigarettes. At the height of his addiction he was smoking two packs a day.

Aldi is one of eight cases the Child Protection Commission, led by Aris Meredek Sirait, is citing in a lawsuit against the government and tobacco companies later this month.

“The government is not able to control cigarettes products," Aris complains. "There are no regulations to control the sale of cigarettes, they are even sold as single cigarettes, nor are there any controls on tobacco advertising.”

Without any government restrictions, cigarette advertisements are plastered throughout downtown Jakarta. Some are designed to appeal to younger consumers, who can also legally purchase cigarettes.

Roadside stalls sell cigarettes for about one U.S. dollar. Stall holder Ibu Surniah admits that, while it’s not morally right, she still sells to teenagers.

“It’s forbidden to sell cigarettes to children, but I give it to them if they insist because they want it,” Ibu says.

With 50 million smokers in the country, there is little widespread knowledge among Indonesians about the health dangers of smoking. Many people smoke in front of their children -- something Ilham’s father, Umar, says should stop.

“We just ask for those responsible from the tobacco companies and the government to help us because our son is really sick from smoking,” Umar says.

Government officials and tobacco company executives refused interview requests. One spokesperson for Sampoerna Tobacco said that while the company does not condone child smokers, parents play an influential role in preventing their children from smoking.

For now, child health advocates merely want to restrict sales and curb advertisements that help get minors started smoking -- long before they are capable of knowing what the habit means for their health.

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