Thursday, June 16, 2011

Thank You for Smoking

As I went to get dressed this morning I had a bit of a surprise, as I went to put on a shirt, I caught a whiff of something reminiscent of a night out in Atlanta during college, when it was still legal to smoke indoors; my shirt reeked of cigarette smoke. Not just a little, I could smell it when I was holding it. But I don't smoke, in fact women in Aceh aren't allowed to smoke. My clothes smell just from being around so many people here smoking all the time, inside, outside, while eating, while riding motorbikes, while loading and unloading trucks. All the time.

I don't think I have ever been to a place where so many people smoke. It's rare to meet a man here who doesn't smoke, and if he doesn't smoke currently it's likely he did but quit for a specific reason. You can smoke indoors almost anywhere, for instance in my hotel my hotel room smells like cigarette smoke (and mold and room freshener and mint strangely enough) because you can smoke in your own room and in all public spaces of the hotel, so the smell seeps in.

I have found that many men here are what I would consider polite about their smoking: if they are with people who do not smoke they may ask first or move to another table before smoking. On the other hand, it's pretty inescapable, should you want to escape. Also, people here smoke local cigarettes scented with nutmeg or other spices, in addition to your average Marlboros.

I have no grand conclusions about the smoking here, I imagine that launching an anti-smoking public health campaign would be equally as difficult as it was in the United States, given that tobacco is grown here, and I can only imagine that the owners of local cigarette companies have some political power, or at least some pull.

What interests me about smoking here, is that engaging in a hobby that causes chronic diseases, is a bit of a second phase health problem. Indonesia hasn't found its way entirely out of infectious disease outbreaks, but things like lung cancer and emphysema are a far cry from cholera outbreaks. This is an interesting step in development, where a lot of people now have the expendable income to buy cigarettes daily. In India and China the consumption of beef has increased markedly as income has increased. As people's income increases, they do not necessarily make healthy choices with that money.

No grand conclusions today, more of a response to all the people who ask me "what's it like where you are?" "what's different?" Well compared to the US, the only place I've been in Indonesia where I've been told explicitly that smoking wasn't allowed was on an airplane. That's a first step I suppose.

If you're interested in learning more about smoking in Indonesia and how culturally ingrained it is, look no further than the 2 year old boy with a cigarette addiction who made the news recently. A 2 year old can use a lighter?

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