Smoke and ire

SCMP September 23 2009


Forget about the US-China tyre war for a moment. Bilateral relations can also be about tiny things - like cloves. Since the election of President Barack Obama, foreign perceptions of the US have taken a huge leap forward and none more so than in Indonesia, where he spent childhood years with his mother and Indonesian stepfather.

But an arbitrary decision by a US agency could be about to undo some of that goodwill shortly before Obama's expected visit in November. From October 1, it will be illegal in the US to sell 'flavoured' cigarettes - mostly the kretek cigarettes which are an Indonesian national icon.

This uniquely Indonesian product, which combines the tobacco of Java with the cloves of its spice islands, has acquired a small cult following in other countries, including the US. The scent of the cloves is even appreciated by many non-smokers. So is the crackling sound of the burning cloves, which accounts for the name.

But, although the kretek cigarette market share in the US is under 1 per cent, it has been singled out for attack by anti-smoking authoritarians via the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which has been handed wide-ranging powers to outlaw 'flavoured' products.

Curiously exempt from the ban is menthol, a key ingredient in 30 per cent of the cigarettes sold in the US by all the multinational tobacco giants like Philip Morris and British American Tobacco (BAT). Those companies do not manufacture kretek cigarettes in the US, nor import them in any significant quantity. Almost all sold in the US are the Djarum brand made by an Indonesian company with no clout or money to buy the FDA or Congress.

There is no evidence that kreteks are worse for smokers than any other cigarettes with a similar tar and nicotine content. Indeed, cloves were originally added on medicinal grounds. Arguably, the chemicals added to ordinary Virginia cigarettes are more injurious to health than cloves, which were originally (in the 1880s) added as an asthma relief. Clove oil itself is marketed in the US and elsewhere as a nutritional supplement with strong anti-inflammatory properties.

Kreteks have been singled out because 'flavouring' is allegedly attractive to young smokers. Even if there were evidence for this, an arbitrary ban on what adults can smoke is an indication of creeping authoritarianism in the 'land of the free'.

It is hard not to see in this the sanctimonious despotism that gave rise to prohibition against alcohol in the 1930s. Americans can ill-afford to jeer at the beer bans and other aspects of intolerance in some Muslim countries. The Taliban mentality is not exclusive to Afghanistan.

It is especially shocking for Indonesians, for two reasons. First, Indonesia, the world's largest Muslim-majority country, is a notoriously freewheeling and pluralistic society that has resisted laws, such as banning alcohol, which might be approved by the majority but would offend minorities.

Second, for decades, the US has, in the interests of free trade, been pushing to open its cigarette industry. Multinationals now control about 35 per cent of the huge Indonesian market, which is dominated by kretek cigarettes. In 2005, Philip Morris paid US$5 billion for the largest local producer, Sampoerna. In June this year, BAT paid US$494 million for another long established name, Bentoel.

The historical ironies are also noteworthy. European settlement of the Americas might never have happened but for the search for a quick way to the cloves and nutmeg of Indonesia's eastern islands which would enable Europeans to gain control of the spice trade. Before cotton, tobacco was, for decades, America's leading export - 40 per cent of the total in 1790 - and is still worth US$2 billion a year.

This is just the sort of trade barrier based on discriminatory health and environmental rules that developing countries fear being used against them by developed ones. It remains to be seen whether Indonesia will take the US to the World Trade Organisation over this. The volume of trade may be too small to bother about. But do not imagine that Indonesians will forget such blatant discrimination against kretek cigarettes - at least not until the US follows its own logic, and bans cigarettes altogether.




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