Documentary series Vanguard’s recent episode “Sex, Lies and Cigarettes” gives a disturbing insight into how cigarettes are sold like candy in Indonesia. Even though cigarette use is declining in countries like the US, in Indonesia more kids are starting—and younger than ever. While viewers probably weren’t surprised to see tobacco executives gloating over this growth market, they may be shocked to learn that tobacco dollars in Indonesia are used to sponsor popular international bands to entice young people to smoke.
The latest bands appearing in Indonesia courtesy of big tobacco’s deep pockets read like a dream list of teen appeal combined with social activism: US teen choice nominees and environmentalists 30 Seconds to Mars, long-time activist for children Joel Madden and his band Good Charlotte, clean-living and previously anti-tobacco Neon Trees, and World Vision partner Ed Kowalczyk. Together with The Cranberries and several other bands they are headline acts at the Java Rockin’ Land Festival to be held in Jakarta from 22 to 24 July, an event expected to attract tens of thousands of young people. The title sponsor is Gudang Garam, one of the country’s largest cigarette manufacturers.
Clearly these bands are serious about their social and ethical credentials, so why are they appearing under the banner of big tobacco, an industry recently ranked a distant last in a global international reputation survey? The festival organizers have said: “Scheduling and pricing of artists are the main challenges in getting the bands on the wish list … the fee that comes with getting certain rock bands is high.”
Being the main sponsors, Gudang Garam’s logo and name is prominently displayed on all TV, radio and print advertising, and it is entitled to booths at the venue, allowing them to freely promote cigarettes to festival goers. As a bonus, they are also running a competition for free tickets—a great way to gain access to entrants’ personal details for marketing purposes. The big name artists attract young fans, and the sponsor gets a captive audience.
As a product sponsor, cigarettes are in a category of their own. Tobacco accounts for at least 200,000 deaths every year in Indonesia—dwarfing the country’s death toll from the 2004 tsunami by tens of thousands. Indonesia is an exception for allowing tobacco sponsorship of music concerts and festivals – most countries have banned it.
The bands involved have received over 1400 petition letters about this sponsorship from concerned fans. None have responded. Presumably they are happy to be used by big tobacco as a marketing drawcard, despite the fact that they would be prevented from doing so in almost every other country in the world. Others artists, including Alicia Keys and Kelly Clarkson, have refused to be used by big tobacco, and gone on to play successful shows in Indonesia without this deadly sponsor. These bands can show their Indonesian fans the same concern they give other worthy causes and insist that tobacco sponsorship of this festival be dropped.