Dying for a Fag

Dying for a Fag

Tue 05 Jun

Kretek cigarettes were first invented by Jamahri of Kudus in Central Java in 1880. An asthmatic, Jamahri rubbed clove oil on his chest to alleviate his symptoms. An avid smoker, he later found that if he inhaled the cloves alongside tobacco he could breathe more easily. The word kretek is derived from the crackling sound that the cloves make as they pop and burn with each inhalation. It is the compound eugenol in the cloves that give kreteks their distinctive aroma – eugenol is an antiseptic and anaesthetic. So it numbs the throat.

Today, kreteks are a massive, money-spinning industry. Indonesia’s 210 million people smoke 200 billion kreteks in a year. There are some 2,000 brands, produced by about 500 companies ranging from tiny family-owned enterprises to some of the biggest and most powerful companies in the nation.

Unfortunately, long since Jamahri of Kudus expired, studies have shown that the health effects of kreteks are similar to conventional cigarettes. In other words, they are very, very bad for you. Controversially, children as young as two years old are given kreteks as a totem of cultural identity.

Mark Hanusz’s book, a used copy of which is on sale now, fans the flames of the debate. It is arguable that Indonesia’s economy has been sustained by the kretek. The industry provides an income to clove farmers as well as factory workers since the majority of kreteks are hand-rolled.

Not only do kreteks provide employment to many Indonesians, but they are also considered to be a cultural icon. Ngudut dan ngopi is the Javanese “art” of smoking whilst drinking coffee. The tradition of decorating kreteks with ground coffee and milk, known as nyethe, is popular in East Java. Batik patterns are painted on each cigarette with toothpicks or spoons.

As a result it is no surprise that Indonesia is the world’s fifth largest tobacco market. Philip Morris’ local subsidiary Sampoerna is one of Indonesia’s largest companies, occupying one of the most imposing towers in a prime spot on Jakarta’s main boulevard, Jalan Sudirman. The firm is free not only to advertise, but also to pursue corporate social responsibility programmes and even sponsor educational events.

In recent years the tobacco lobby has even had the temerity to push for kretek cigarettes to receive “national heritage”, despite the fact that tobacco is not native to Indonesia and that kreteks only emerged in the 19th century. According to Tobacco-Free Kids, a charity based in Indonesia, the real reason the lobby wants to do this is not to preserve any heritage, but to maintain its special status and market access.

“It is good work,” said a roller named Rukayah interviewed in 2001 by the New York Times. Rukakyah worked in a kretek factory. Her hands were flying like lightning as she spoke, “because if I weren’t doing this, I wouldn’t have a job.” At the age of 42, after 26 years on the job, she told the reporter that kretek has given her funny dreams

“Sometimes I dream that I’m locked in here with my friends, still rolling kreteks, and I can’t stop.”


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