Indonesia minister in row over free cigarettes

Cycle rickshaw driver waiting for a fare in Jakarta (April 2008)
Image caption It is estimated that about 35% of the Indonesian population smokes

Indonesian anti-smoking groups have threatened to take legal action against a government minister for distributing free packets of cigarettes to members of an indigenous tribe.

They say the social affairs minister's actions breached government regulations on tobacco promotion.

However, Khofifah Indar Parawansa said she distributed the cigarettes as a goodwill gesture, reports said.

Indonesia is estimated to have more than 50 million smokers.

It is thought to be the world's fifth-largest tobacco market.

High levels of smoking among children in particular have added to concerns about the state of the nation's health.

Ms Khofifah is reported to have handed out gifts, including cigarettes, on a recent visit to an under-developed part of central Sumatra.

Campaigners have threatened Ms Khofifah with legal action unless she apologises within two weeks.

"The social affairs minister was deliberately ignoring public health by distributing free cigarettes," Tulus Abadi, operational manager at the Indonesian Consumers Foundation, was quoted as saying by the Jakarta Globe.

Image copyright EPA
Image caption Combating child smoking is a major challenge for the authorities

The newspaper said the minister was visiting the indigenous tribe to express her condolences for the death of 11 people who had died of starvation.

"Whatever the reasoning was, it is incomprehensible that a high official would distribute cigarettes to her own people," Mr Tulus said.

"It would have been more becoming if money spent on the cigarettes had instead been used to buy basic necessities or other useful things."

But Ms Khofifah is reported to have argued that the free cigarettes were "just a way to get on the good side of the locals".

"I don't want to argue but you'd better go there yourself. Greet them and ask them about their culture. Do not see things from a Jakarta-centric perspective," she was quoted by as saying.

The foundation argues that her actions in distributing the cigarettes are "in direct violation" of 2012 government regulations on tobacco control, which disallow free distribution and discounts for tobacco products.

The BBC's South Asia editor Jill McGivering says that pictures of the cigarette distribution sparked a heated debate after they began circulating on the internet.

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