Tracey Koehlmoos: Meeting the Marlboro man in Jakarta

Tracey KoelhmoosLast week my three boys and I were visiting friends on our first trip to Indonesia. Jakarta is enchanting…shiny, modern, glossy, and brimming with cultural charm: twisty roads, unique architecture, flamboyant flora, and great food. 

While turning a corner on our way from the airport we ran into a twenty-five foot poster of the Marlboro man. He featured on a hoarding board in a major intersection in a posh neighborhood. He was rugged and dashing in full cowboy attire. We saw him again near a mall and again near an enormous KFC. Previously my sons had not seen the Marlboro man, who lingers only as a cultural artifact of unhealthy behaviour in the textbooks and urban legends of their school health courses.

However, cigarettes are ubiquitous in Jakarta. We switched tables at more than one restaurant when someone lit up right next to us. People smoke on the streets, at bus stops and in restaurants. I learned that some 64% of men in Indonesia smoke – that is approximately 57 million people.

Obviously, I thought during my trip, Indonesia is not a signatory of the Framework Convention for Tobacco Control. However, a little research at my favorite anti-smoking site, the Tobacco Free Centre ( taught me that Indonesia is the ONLY country in South East Asia to not ratify the FCTC.

The small steps taken so far in Indonesia are to ban smoking in health facilities and schools and universities. Cigarette boxes do have warnings in the local language.

However, there is a long way to go when some 24% of boys aged 12-15 smoke. If households with smokers spend 11% of their income on tobacco and spend a similar amount on food staples and only 3.2% on education, then where is the balance at a household level? The nation spends an estimated US$ 1.2 billion per year on tobacco-related illnesses.

The cost of inaction on tobacco is high. Perhaps it is time for the Marlboro man to ride off into the sunset.

Tracey Koehlmoos is programme head for health and family planning systems at ICDDR,B and adjunct professor at the James P. Grant School of Public Health, BRAC University.