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Tobacco's Toll on Indonesia

Yusuke Ota

Oct. 4, 2016

A growing number of children are working in Indonesia's tobacco industry and their health is suffering.

Anti-smoking measures have been getting stronger in many developed countries, including Japan. But the move is less prevalent in other parts of the world.

The percentage of smokers is on the rise in many countries in Africa, the Middle East and Southeast Asia. Rising prosperity is one of the reasons behind the increase.

In the early 2000s, tobacco production was in decline but in the past decade the industry has sprung back.

In Indonesia, the economy is steadily expanding and so is the number of smokers. The country's smoking rate among males aged 15 or older is now the highest in the world at 76 percent.

The habit has even spread to children. In 2010, a video of a 2-year-old child smoking stoked widespread controversy in Indonesia and overseas.

Tobacco advertising is conspicuous on streets around the country. There are few laws regulating the industry and tobacco signs can be seen just about anywhere -- near schools, parks or outside public facilities.

As the number of non-smokers is rising in industrialized countries, foreign cigarette companies are stepping up their sales campaigns in developing countries, including Indonesia.

Lombok Island is a major tobacco production center in the country. Growing tobacco there began only about 15 years ago but it's now a mainstay industry along with tourism.

Every household in one village of about 500 people is connected to tobacco production. Twelve-year-old Elizatun Isnaini has been working in the business for the past 5 years.

She works for about 4 hours every day after school, earning about one dollar. She says she has no choice but to work to help pay for her education because her parents can't afford it on their own.

"I can buy textbooks for school if I work here," Elizatun says.

But recently she'd been feeling unwell.

"I feel very sick when I touch tobacco leaves. I find it hard to breathe and my head aches. My joints hurt, too," Elizatun says.

At harvest time, nicotine from the leaves is absorbed through the skin when handling tobacco leaves with bare hands. It can cause headaches, a weakening of muscles, coughing and a shortness of breath. Elizatun can't afford to visit a clinic -- all she can do is take headache medicine given to her by her parents.

This nicotine poisoning is called Green Tobacco Sickness. Other children who work with tobacco also complain of one type of sickness or another.

"I once threw up after handling tobacco leaves. I developed a fever, too," says one young worker.

Most adults are unaware of Green Tobacco Sickness so no measures have been taken to protect children.

"You can't develop a sickness by handling tobacco leaves with your bare hands. It's common here for children to work to help their parents," says Munir, the leader of a group of tobacco workers.

An international human rights group that has studied the Indonesian tobacco industry says it's making money off the backs of children.