The tobacco industry has got Indonesia in a chokehold, so much so that Indonesian child smokers are becoming the rule rather than the exception.
You can’t walk more than a few feet in the Republic of Indonesia without seeing a tobacco advertisement. The images are so prevalent and deeply ingrained within the culture that children as young as four are already addicted to smoking – sometimes going through multiple packs of cigarettes a day. They’re cheap, the lobbying is relentless, and virtually no information is made available about the dangers of addiction or smoking-related health risks (interestingly, some clinics in Indonesia claim that tobacco smoke is something of a panacea, able to cure everything from autism to certain kinds of cancer).
Photographer Michelle Siu travelled to the country to document and experience this unfortunate trend firsthand. In a photo set called “Marlboro Boys”, we are made privy to an unsettling problem filtered through a caring—yet honest—lens; one that shines a light on the sadness of the issue and hopes to reverse it. Siu says, “Young smokers begin the cycle that fuels the addiction but at a health cost for generations to come. It is my hope that this project may not only shock and inform viewers but that it may also help pose important questions about Indonesia’s often dated relationship with tobacco.”
It’s difficult to deny how much of Indonesia’s economic livelihood depends on this industry. Tobacco has brought a considerable amount of quick financial success to local tobacco farmers.
Even as the West has seen a rapid decline of smokers, Indonesia carries on in its own consistent tobacco demand: 67% of Indonesian males smoke on a regular basis –and sadly, this would include the smallest ones that haven’t even made it to school yet. In 2010, the University of Indonesia School of Economics’ Demographics Institute found that 426,000 of Indonesian children between the ages of 10-14 are smokers.
As alarming as these figures are, the Indonesian government is hesitant to regulate the use of these products, because in the short term large youth smoking populations will raise tobacco profits, not decrease them. However, such a move will ultimately be detrimental to this demographic and by extension, Indonesia’s future. As UI researcher Diahhadi Setyonaluri said to the Jakarta Post, “If many Indonesians from the productive age group ares smoking, their output will be affected so that they may not be able to optimally contribute to the country’s economy.”
To see Siu’s pictures is to bear witness to innocence lost; it is to see a ritualistic devaluation of children in a chase for the almighty tobacco dollar. Donning halos of smoke, they are pawns in one of the oldest and dirtiest games on Earth. As Siu notes, “They inhale and exhale like old men that have been smoking for years – some of them have been smoking two packs a day since they were little kids.”
Siu states that it was her “intention to approach this issue of tobacco consumption in Indonesia using portraiture in hopes that showing elementary school aged children, some who have smoked up to two packs a day, was a visually compelling way to help unravel some of the complex the social, political and economic issues at play. The tobacco industry is tied to the country’s economy and that industry relies on consumption.”
Only time will tell if Indonesia – along with other countries going through similar problems – will ever be in a position to bite the hand that feeds it. But if and when that happens, will it be too late for the smallest uninformed victims of big tobacco?
See more of Michelle Siu’s documentary work on her website.