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Is Indonesia, one of big tobacco's last frontiers, closing?

Not fast enough for anti-smoking campaigners. But Indonesia is slowly taking steps to end its status as one of the great growth markets for tobacco companies.

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But despite that all Indonesian tobacco companies, foreign or locally-owned, continue to pump out cigarettes and profits, there are signs that this frontier of opportunity for big tobacco is closing. Recent efforts by anti-tobacco groups and Indonesia’s health ministry appear to be making some progress.

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Smoke free Indonesia?

A 2009 law health law includes tobacco in its list of addictive substances and requires public places to establish smoke free zones. New tobacco control regulations signed by President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono last December require picture warnings to cover up to 40 percent of cigarette packets, prohibit the sale of tobacco to children under 18 and ban tobacco logos at industry-sponsored events.

But sponsorship is still allowed, and at Java Jazz its pervasiveness was on full display. The Djarum named papered expo walls and stages and leggy women in white sold mini packs of 16 cigarettes for a $1.50.

According to the World Health Organization, smoking-related illnesses kill at least 200,000 Indonesians every year. One in three adult men smoke and nearly 80 percent of them started before the age of 19.

Anti-smoking groups say advertising and sponsorship of pop music events is part of the problem.

“Being constantly bombarded by advertisements that say tobacco use is cool is causing such a high rate of tobacco use,” said Mark Hurley, the Indonesia program director at Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids.

Market research firms say Indonesia has all the right ingredients to drive the growth of tobacco use – a growing economy, rising disposable incomes and a huge population of young people with easy access to low-cost cigarettes.

It also has an extremely powerful tobacco lobby. Some of Indonesia’s richest and most politically connected individuals made their fortunes in tobacco. The No. 1 spot on Forbes’ Indonesia’s rich list last year, for instance, was filled by R. Budi and Michael Hartono, the sons of Djarum’s founder, with an estimated combined net worth of $15 billion.

And big profits mean big money to splash out on sponsorship, a condition event organizers don’t see changing soon.

In past years Alicia Keys and Kelly Clarkson both cancelled planned concerts in Jakarta after coming under fire from anti-tobacco groups, but Hurley said efforts to get other artists to back out of tobacco-sponsored events have been, “disappointing.”

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