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
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
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