A period drama about the fortunes of an Indonesian family in the clove cigarette (kretek) business is the latest streaming hit from Asia.
Based on a popular novel, “Cigarette Girl” was filmed in Java against a backdrop of tobacco plantations, warehouses, and vintage kretek factories. The five-episode series has “a ton of smoking,” wrote one reviewer.
Following its debut on Netflix last November, “Cigarette Girl” was on the streaming platform’s non-English, global top ten list for two consecutive weeks. The series also topped the weekly list of most popular streaming shows in Indonesia.
Does kretek nostalgia undercut the country’s campaign to curb tobacco use?
A new report on tobacco trends published by the World Health Organization (WHO) highlights the less glamorous aspects of cigarette smoking in Indonesia. Southeast Asia had the highest rate of tobacco consumption of any region, driven primarily by the Indonesian market, which ranks second after China.
Globally, nicotine use is declining. However, smoking in Indonesia has risen precipitously in the last two decades, especially among males. According to the WHO report, Indonesian men had the highest rate of tobacco use at 73.6 percent, up from around 58.4 percent in 2000.
Clove cigarettes dominate the Indonesian market, accounting for 90 percent of sales. Kreteks were first sold in the 1880s as a remedy for lung ailments like asthma and subsequently gained a reputation as a less toxic, “herbal” alternative to nicotine cigarettes.
“The false image of these products as clean, natural, and safer than regular cigarettes seems to attract some young people who might otherwise not start smoking,” observed the American Cancer Society after clove cigarettes gained popularity with teenagers and college students in California during the 1980s.
Within Indonesian society, however, kreteks are viewed more favorably. Mark Hanusz, author of “Kretek: The Culture and Heritage of Indonesia’s Clove Cigarettes,” told an industry publication that the indigenous product was “very much a national symbol as well as a source of pride.”
“Cigarette Girl” delves into the subculture of the clove cigarette industry through a flavor-obsessed lead character. “The secret of kretek is in its sauce,” says Dasiyah, played by Indonesian movie star Dian Sastrowardoyo. Dasiyah is determined to shatter gender barriers in an industry where women “can only be rollers” by experimenting with aromas in the forbidden “sauce room.”
The “sauce” recipe is often a closely guarded secret and could determine “the success or failure of a kretek brand on the market,” explained Monika Arnez, a Southeast Asia scholar at the University of Hamburg.
Kretek sales boomed in the early 1980s when machine-made cigarettes flooded the market, surpassing the hand-rolled varieties. Indonesia’s wealthiest family, the Hartonos, made their fortune in the clove cigarette business. Their brand Djarum popularized kreteks using “aggressive” advertising campaigns.
Tobacco entrepreneurs have been criticized for hard-knuckle tactics and “unnecessary interaction” with the government. The industry “works to defeat, dilute and delay effective tobacco control measures,” wrote Mary Assunta, principal author of the Global Tobacco Industry Interference Index.
The tobacco industry in Indonesia thrives due to the low price point of cigarettes: a pack of kreteks retails for about $1. A 2020 Universitas Brawijaya study by the Faculty of Medicine pointed out that “the cigarette tax in Indonesia is far below the WHO recommendation of 70% of retail price,” making it an attractive market globally for cigarette manufacturers.
The easy availability of kreteks has had far-reaching social consequences for Indonesia, which has one of the highest rates of smoking among children and adolescents. The median age of lung cancer patients is younger than in any other country, with the Indonesian Society of Respirology blaming the “early onset of carcinogens” brought on by underage smoking.
Yet the appeal of kreteks remains undimmed. Clove cigarettes are an entrenched part of the cultural landscape, explained Kamila Andini, co-director of “Cigarette Girl.”
“Like rice and coffee, tobacco is one of the textures of Indonesia,” she said.