How Did Indonesia’s Love Affair with Cigarettes Begin?

According to the World Health Organisation, in a census taken in 2013, it was recorded that over 30% of the Indonesian population above the age of 15 are smokers; 63% of Indonesian men and around 3.5% of women. With such shocking smoking statistics, it begs the question - why? Here we look at the historical and cultural factors that have led to Indonesia’s love affair with smoking.

The Spread of the Cigarette

Tobacco smoking has been around for centuries, but cigarettes are a more recent phenomenon. The French officially named the cigarette the "cigarette" in 1830, it was then properly manufactured in 1845. During the Crimean Wars (1853-1856) the British and French troops were constantly around the shisha-smoking Ottomans (Turkish), which made smoking more popular. Naturally, popularity spread to other European countries. It wasn't until 1881, when James Bonsack created the cigarette-making machine did smoking really spread properly. 

The Dutch

During this period, Indonesia was of course under the colonial rule of the Dutch. However, Indonesians back were not a nation of smokers, but a nation of chewers!

As was customary to village-life, Indonesians went to nature to ‘get their fix’; the majority of Indonesians chewed on betel nut and betel leaves. The Dutch saw the chewing of betel nut as backwards and tribal - with the locals showing stained teeth and oozing purple liquid from the sides of their mouth. But around the start of the 1900’s, the Dutch colonialists could be seen smoking cigarettes. These newly brought creations were a sign of modernity and progress. It became it’s very own segregation: the village-living, betel-chewing Indonesian and the modern, forward-thinking, smoking Dutchman. 

Cigarettes were reserved for the Dutch, but select members of Indonesian society were able to mix with the Dutch, mainly academics, artists, nobility and royalty. They were given access to Dutch schools and Dutch “benefits”, such as smoking cigarettes. Smoking cigarettes then became a symbol -  a symbol of education, modernity and superiority amongst the Indonesians. 

It was with this connection (smoking = success and modernity) the cultural importance and social view of cigarette smoking in Indonesian society began. 

Old cigarette pack, "prijaji" means "nobility". Source:

Old cigarette pack, "prijaji" means "nobility". Source:

The Kretek and Nationalism

After the opening of the country’s first cigarette manufacturing factory in 1924, Indonesian entrepreneurs began mixing local, traditional flora into the tobacco, which evolved into kretek, or the clove cigarette, which has appealed to the Indonesian population ever since it’s creation (90% of Indonesian smokers smoke kretek).

These clove cigarettes have had a profound effect on smoking’s ‘social embeddedness’ amongst the Indonesian population through its reputation as a symbol of Indonesian culture. This symbolic nature of the kretek arose after decolonization and the country’s independence. Lower-income workers began smoking this more affordable kretek cigarettes and they served as effective distractions in everyday life; feelings of solidarity and identity emerged throughout the poor communities. Pricing made it readily available to all income levels at this time as well. 

So, price, packaging and advertising for cigarettes became very oriented around hard work, stress relief, respect for Indonesia, nationalism and tradition as a way to advertise their products - further creating an acceptance for smoking within society. The tobacco industry was also seen as a huge boost to the economy, at a local and national scale, which made it another thing to be proud of - and thus support.

It’s not just smoking, it’s patriotism! 

"Kebanggaan Indonesia" - Pride of Indonesia. Source:

"Kebanggaan Indonesia" - Pride of Indonesia. Source:

Advertising and Innovation

Clearly, historical factors made smoking not only acceptable but actually an encouraged act in Indonesian society. However, today, we a see a whole new factor that has kept Indonesia a population of puffers - advertising. 

Whilst countries around the world are slowly stripping cigarettes of their ability to spread, it seems here in Indonesia cigarette companies are given free reign. So, the traditional elements of (1) cigarettes mean modernity (2) cigarettes mean patriotism are now being, are now being added to with new motivations and reasons to smoke. 

From the classic Marlboro Man making young Indonesians aspire to become cowboys, to sponsoring leagues of the much-loved game of football (soccer) and reaching the youth through “Don’t Say Maybe” or “Go Ahead” types of campaigns. 

Through product innovation, they have reached a new market: women. Following on from the same ‘cigarettes mean modernity’ factor, using slim cigarettes, women can now look modern, successful and remain elegant. Isn’t it true? If we look at the portion of Indonesian smokers, the majority of them are higher-income, urban, stylish type of women - proving their modernity through smoking. Very rarely will you see Indonesian village, or lower-income women smoking. 


Indonesian society has grown used to cigarettes being part of everyday life. The way cigarettes have been perceived in history and how they are continuously presented to us on a daily basis is the root cause of why such a large proportion of the country are smokers.

Michelle Siu (Michelle Siu did a powerful collection of photographs depicting young smoking in Indonesia).

Michelle Siu (Michelle Siu did a powerful collection of photographs depicting young smoking in Indonesia).

From the hard-working, patriotic truck drivers and road workers smoking homegrown kretek; to the modern, aspiring Indonesian women, smoking their slims as they move up in the world; and the wanderlust and happy-go-lucky youth who want to rebel and live life their own ways. Smoking is not only an act, it is a symbol of identity in the country. 

But, whilst history, patriotism, culture and advertising are all reasons why this habit is now intertwined within our society and everyday life, they shouldn’t be an excuse. To really show we are a modern nation is to move past this historical stigma and perception and to realize that health is bigger than "social proof". Only then can our love affair with cigarettes cease to exist. 

Slowly, we see small changes in our society, like this "cigarette ad free warung below". Watch this confronting new anti-smoking advertising video as well to see what efforts are being made.