Sex, Lies and Cigarettes

In the spring of 2010 video of a smoking baby went viral and became an international sensation. When the laughter stopped the world moved on. But there’s much more in this story then one child’s cigarette addiction. If you thought that public health battle against tobacco was over, think again.

This is the story of how smoking decline in the West has fueled Big Tobacco’s hunt for new consumers in some of the poorest countries on Earth. They’re doing everything in their power to take the same product, the same deceptive marketing practices, and transport them around the world.

Vanguard goes undercover to hear how Big Tobacco talks behind closed doors, and they take to the streets to meet the small band of activists fighting for change in the country where the overwhelming message is loud and clear: cigarettes are cool, cigarettes are fun, and cigarettes are sexy. They set out on a journey to find the world’s most famous smoker and along the way they found a global health crisis in the making.

In Times Square, in the heart of New York City, you’ll find advertising for just about everything. But, there is one product that’s conspicuously absent from the bright lights and flashy billboards. Cigarette advertising has been all but snuffed out in United States. A single pack of smokes will set you back a whopping $12. New York City is now the most expensive place in the country to buy cigarettes. That’s due largely to a hefty sin tax imposed by both the city and the state in an attempt to strongly discourage consumers from smoking. A far-cry from the way things used to be. It wasn’t so long ago that America was Marlboro country.

Cigarettes are the only consumer product which when used as intended will kill half of its long term customers. The global health crisis persists and in fact the threat is greater than ever. Smoking, this century, will kill a billion people if we don’t do something about it. One billion deaths and nearly 80% of those deaths will take place in the developing world. That’s were Big Tobacco is headed in an effort to make up for lost revenue in the US and Europe. The industry is on the hunt for new consumers in some of the poorest countries on Earth.

For a westerner, stepping off the plane in Indonesia is, in some ways, like stepping back in time. The onslaught of cigarette advertisements really starts when you hit the streets. The kind of marketing that has largely disappeared from the West now blankets Indonesia. Ad after ad, tying cigarettes to images of independence, adventure, and most of all youth.

The ubiquity of cigarette ads is not limited to the capital city of Jakarta either. Even on the dirt roads of the country’s many rural villages it’s the one aspect of the Indonesian landscape that remains constant. For Big Tobacco Indonesia offers fertile and perhaps irresistible new territory with little or no government regulation of the tobacco industry. Indonesia is the new Marlboro country.

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