The Public Policy

Clove Encounters

Indonesia ends up victimized by an eerie tobacco war that's protecting U.S. growers.

By 10.31.07

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WASHINGTON -- The clove cigarette has become something of a cliche. With its dark wrapper and strong, peculiar -- and, to many, sickening -- smell, it's best known as the prop de rigueur of sullen, artistic-leaning college kids and people who read too many vampire novels. Recently, however, it has taken on a new role: center of an international trade feud.

Legislation in the U.S. Senate would ban cloves, along with several other flavored cigarette varieties, under the mantra so oft-used to ban things these days: protecting the children. The measure -- part of a broader tobacco regulation bill granting the Food and Drug Administration the power to regulate tobacco products -- has ignited controversy with the government of Indonesia, which claims the proposed ban represents a "serious trade issue" and has threatened to file a formal challenge with the World Trade Organization should the bill become law.

"If the legislation has the effect of only or primarily banning Indonesian cigarettes...then there could be a case that the bill is targeted at Indonesia," says Daniel Ikenson, associate director of the Center for Trade Policy Studies at the Cato Institute.

Made from a mix of tobacco and clove leaves, clove cigarettes -- or kreteks, as they are known in Indonesia -- are a major Indonesian export to the United States. In 2006, Indonesia made more than 99 percent of the clove cigarettes imported by the U.S., to the tune of $10.28 million. Indonesia is home to more than 500 kretek manufacturers (including leading brands Sampoerna and Djarum), and the kretek industry is the country's largest employer.

The Indonesian government called the proposed ban "discriminatory and protectionist," claiming kreteks are more similar to menthol cigarettes, which are specifically exempted from the ban, than to other flavored varieties. It claims "no scientific evidence...has been produced to show the specific health risks of clove cigarette that would warrant banning this cigarette, but not menthol." Unlike clove cigarettes, however, most menthol cigarettes are manufactured in the U.S.

This apparent discrepancy in treatment of foreign and domestic cigarettes has left legislators scrambling to refute Indonesia's not-entirely-unreasonable charges of "disguised protectionism."

Melissa Wagoner, press secretary for Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass. (who introduced the measure in the Senate), offers a strangely Orwellian rationalization: banning menthol smoking will actually harm menthol smokers!

"Menthol cigarettes have been on the market for decades and a substantial number of smokers have developed a dependency on them," says Wagoner. Were menthols banned, these smokers might turn to "illicit, black market tobacco products that are even more dangerous to their health," she explains.

Meanwhile, Sen. Mike Enzi (R-WY) insists the discrepancy is protectionism -- for the ever-villainous "Big Tobacco," which dares suggest it's in business to make a profit and should therefore sell whatever products (legal, adult) consumers like best.

But "unscrupulous tobacco companies" use "flavors like clove" to lure teenagers into smoking, says Senator Enzi, who is, at least, consistent: this putative small-government conservative champions banning both cloves and menthols.

SENATOR ENZI SHOULD CHECK the data about teen clove smoking, though: According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, clove cigarettes make up only a small percentage of teen and tween tobacco use. The 2004 National Youth Tobacco Survey found that among high school students, cloves accounted for only 2.3 percent of tobacco use, with regular cigarettes accounting for 22.3 percent, followed by cigars (12.8 percent), smokeless tobacco (6.0 percent), pipes (3 percent) and bidis (2.6 percent). Among middle school students, cloves made up just 1.5 percent of tobacco use (in comparison with 8.1 percent for regular cigarettes and 5.2 percent for cigars).

The Specialty Tobacco Council points out that cloves generally cost more than regular cigarettes and are typically sold only in high-end tobacco shops, making them less attractive and available to minors. If legislators are really in this to protect the children, a ban on menthols -- which are more easily accessible, possibly harder to quit, and which several studies have shown to be popular among teens (especially low-income African American teens) -- would at least make more sense.

But "unlike other flavorings, menthol cigarettes constitute a major share --about 27 percent -- of the [U.S.] market," says Wagoner, a statement laughably antithetical to her assertions that ban decisions are based solely on health-and-welfare of smokers rationale.

"It seems...this [is] feel-good, do-nothing legislation that's typical of Congress these days," says David Harsanyi, Denver Post columnist and author of Nanny State.

Unsurprisingly, the measure has "strong bipartisan support," according to Wagoner. "It is widely expected to be enacted in this Congress."

A spokesman from the Embassy of Indonesia's Office of Agriculture said his country would back off its trade complaint should the ban be changed to include menthol cigarettes.

Even if the trade issue can be overcome, however, Harsanyi notes another reason to oppose a ban on clove cigarettes: "Smoking is a legal activity, and American adults should be able to make the choice about which flavors they smoke."

It sounds entirely too sensible, doesn't it? Really -- won't Harsayni please think of the liberal arts students and Ann Rice-fans?

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