Netflix’s ‘Cigarette Girl’ lights up debate about cigarette depiction in media

The series is a period drama and tells the story of Dasiyah, or Jeng Yah, the daughter of a kretek (clove cigarette) mogul in the 1960s as she tries to come up with a new kretek flavour.

Radhiyya Indra

Radhiyya Indra

The Jakarta Post


Dian Sastrowardoyo, playing Dasiyah or Jeng Yah in the Netflix series “Cigarette Girl“, is seen experimenting with a recipe for a new cigarette flavor. PHOTO: Netflix/THE JAKARTA POST

November 22, 2023

JAKARTA – Indonesia recently achieved another milestone in its film and television industry when international streaming service Netflix finally produced the country’s first-ever TV series for its over-the-top (OTT) platform.

The result is Cigarette Girl (English for Gadis Kretek), a five-episode limited series that has now entered the platform’s top-10 most-watched non-English series, with 1.6 million views over the last week alone.

But the series is not without its detractors. Many have objected to its carefree depiction of cigarettes, with social media users expressing their concern that audiences will get into smoking after watching the series.

“I’m afraid that this new series will instead push people to be first-time smokers,” user @ObiWan_Catnobi said on the social media platform X, formerly called Twitter, on Nov. 4.

The post reached 2 million views and garnered thousands of engagements from posters who agreed with the sentiment.

The series, adapted from a novel of the same name by author Ratih Kumala, is a period drama directed by acclaimed filmmakers Kamila Andini and Ifa Isfansyah. It tells the story of Dasiyah, or Jeng Yah, the daughter of a kretek (clove cigarette) mogul in the 1960s as she tries to come up with a new kretek flavor.

As usually happens when a movie or TV series becomes popular on X, fans of the series eventually create compilation clips, often of Jeng Yah smoking. It helps that the series stars powerhouse local actors like Dian Sastrowardoyo, Ario Bayu and Putri Marino.

“Dian Sastro smoking is key, it still lingers on my mind,” said the caption on a TikTok video by @seniasgenz. The video has nearly 75,000 likes.

The reaction to these clips is even more divided, with many fearing that it could influence more children and women in the country to smoke.

Deeper readings

For Bandung-based copywriter Alifia Annisa, the series’ depiction of smoking cannot be simplified to just a mere glorification or even advertisement.

“To me, the depiction of cigarettes in the series can be an analogy of how competent women can be against men in the public sphere, such as in non-domestic work and a career beyond the kitchen,” the 25-year-old told The Jakarta Post on Wednesday.

Film enthusiast Raissa Nurul Hasya shared the same reading of the show, saying that the heart of the story lies in Jeng Yah’s passion for her craft, which just so happens to be cigarettes.

“It represents women back in those times who were restrained and not able to pursue their passion freely,” she said to the Post on Tuesday.

Raissa believes that, compared with other Western media productions, the series does not glorify smoking. In fact, it sneakily implies how smoking is bad at various times. In one scene, the characters go into a hospital room with a poster about lung cancer hanging in the background. The poster shows cigarettes as one of the cancer’s main causes.

“If anything, it shows the bad outcomes of smoking from the characters’ fate. Pak Raja, the kretek manufacturer himself, is terminally ill with cancer,” she said.

Art’s moral responsibility?

This divisiveness has led to social media users debating the subject of cigarette depiction even beyond the series. Some have argued that the negative reactions toward the series are “overblown”, while others said the show sets an example that could influence some viewers to take up smoking.

The Association of Public Health Experts’ Tobacco Control Support Center (TCSC IAKMI) said that while the series is “a commendable piece of art” from its screenplay to its cinematography, the many smoking scenes in the series are “unfortunate”.

“They could weaken our long-time effort to reduce the prevalence of smoking among children and teenagers,” TCSC spokesperson Kiki Soewarso told the Post on Wednesday.

Indonesia has an unrelenting number of young smokers.

The Health Ministry’s Basic Health Survey (Riskesdas) shows that the prevalence of smoking among children aged between 10 and 18 years old kept increasing from 7.2 percent in 2013 to 10.7 percent in 2019. If it remains unchecked, it could reach 16 percent of children in 2030.

Like many on social media, the TCSC’s concern also lies in Netflix’s rating for the show, which classifies it as suitable for ages 13 and over. They believe the series should only be for adults.

“We are worried that the series could give children an understanding that cigarettes are normal, safe to consume, and a product inherited from generation to generation that must be preserved,” Kiki continued.

Netflix has yet to respond to the Post’s question regarding the rating system.

Alifia, who is also a smoker, did not deny that the main character might lead to impressionable people wanting to be like her.

“With Dian Sastro as a beautiful but tough, independent woman, who looks as cool as the masculine men in the show, it might add to the thinking that if you want to be cool, you should smoke!” she said.

The effect is already apparent in the social media realm with numerous posters sharing that the series made them want to try smoking.

Lilik Kustanto, lecturer in film and television at the Indonesia Art Institute (ISI) Yogyakarta, said that cigarette depiction is necessary at times for a motion picture’s aesthetic purposes, though it has to be on “a tolerable level.”

“My view is that smoking can be shown as an artistic expression, as long as it serves a narrative purpose,” he said to the Post on Thursday.

Lilik noted that there are other regulatory aspects that give rise to smokers beyond cigarettes’ depiction in cinema.

The Indonesian government has long been criticized by health workers and activists for not enforcing strong regulations on cigarettes.

“The current regulations have not been able to curb the rate of smoking prevalence in Indonesia because there hasn’t been a total ban on promotional advertising and cigarette sponsorship, pictorial health warnings are still below the World Health Organization [WHO] standards and the discourse on banning the sale of individual cigarettes, which has been mandated through a presidential decree, has not been followed up,” Iman Zein, the project lead for tobacco control at the Center for Indonesia Strategic Development Initiative (CISDI), stated back in July.

The government has since worked on a new draft government regulation (RPP) to better implement the 2023 Health Law on safeguarding addictive substances.

The regulation will see stricter regulations on cigarette production all the way to banning any cigarette sponsorship or advertisement in the media.

But regardless of the government’s regulation, health workers still agree that popular films or series like Cigarette Girl should be mindful of their audiences.

“It’s really not good knowing the potential for young smokers. [Smoking] reduces the younger generation’s lifespan as young smokers usually get lung cancer faster, for example, at 40 down from the average age of 50,” Erlang Samoedro, a lung specialist at Pelni hospital, said to the Post on Wednesday.

Studies across the years have also shown the media’s effect on people’s smoking patterns. Research by the National Library of Medicine shows that there is a direct link between viewing smoking scenes and immediate subsequent smoking behavior among audience members.

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