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Indonesia’s epidemic of chain-smoking children

In the small village of Teluk Kemang Sungai Lilin in South Sumatra, an 8-year-old sits besides his mother and one might never guess his tumultuous past.

Six years ago, Aldi Suganda – also known as Aldi Rizal – was a 2-year-old addicted to cigarettes, smoking many packs a day, according to CNN. “It was hard for me to stop,” he said. “If I am not smoking, my mouth taste is sour and my head feel dizzy. I am happy now. I feel more enthusiastic, and my body is feeling fresh.”

The boy’s mother, Diana, remembers the period when Aldi was a global sensation, with video clips of him smoking excessively. Back then, Diana’s son would get angry and throw tantrums if she withheld cigarettes from him or didn’t give him money ro obtain them. “He (would) start to smash his head to the wall. He was crazy, hurting himself if he didn’t get a cigarette,” she said.

Talking about the people who would accuse her of being a bad mother and question her parenting style, she noted: “I am a weak mom. He always threaten me if I didn’t give him money. … I (was) afraid he (was) going to die.”

Apart from Aldi, there are other 267,000 children who are use tobacco products every day. His mother believes that his actions began when he accompanied her each morning to the market where she sells vegetables. There, people taught him to smoke and he could easily get new cigarettes by simply asking at the market. Given that Indonesia has the highest percentage of male smokers globally, as well as the highest level of adolescent and child smokers in the world, due to lack of control on advertising, this is not so unbelievable.

Right now, Aldi is a healthy boy who goes to school and gets good grades. After year of rehabilitation with the country’s leading child psychogist and chairman of the nation’s National Commission for Child Protection, Dr. Seoto Mulyadi. However, when Aldi recovered from his tobacco cravings, he began binge-eatins as a way of compensation, which lead him on the path of obesity. A second bout of rehabilitation managed to cure his overeating as well.

“He was just 3 years old, and he smoked four packs a day,” Mulyadi said. “(But) I was confident because he is still very young. Psychologically, as a child, he is very flexible and easier to be cured.” And thankfully, he is cured for now. “I don’t want to smoke anymore,” Aldi said. “I don’t want to get sick. Please don’t smoke. Don’t even try it. It’s hard to quit.”

Despite Aldi’s warning, there are no signs of this phenomenon’s decline. In most countries, the rates of smokers under 18 fell between 2013 and 2016, but in Indonesia they grew from 7.2% to 8.8%. Considering the country’s population is greater than 261 million, it can be observed that millions of youths continue to smoke today. Even worse, among 10 to 14 year-olds, more than 3% were smokers between 2013 and 2016 (most of them boys). Furthermore, over 18% of boys and over 9% of girls aged 10 to 14 had tried a cigarette, as Indonesia Basic Health Research data showed. More worryingly, 1.5% of boys and 1.4% of girls 5 to 9 years old had tried a cigarette.

The Ministry of Health is currently working to align with other ministries and the World Health Organization to tackle the problem of cigarettes. Mulyadi, the doctor who treated Aldi, said that there are similar cases to Aldi’s that don’t get as much attention. He believes that the Indonesian government is not as strict as it should be, saying: “As long as cigarette ads are spread out massively on TV, radio, newspapers, outdoor signage, everywhere, the problem of child smokers will get worse and worse.”

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