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Mom of toddler smoker in Indonesia seeks help for him

By Arwa Damon, CNN
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Very young smokers in Indonesia
  • Authorities: Smoking a part of Indonesian culture, not seen as hazardous
  • Mother of 2-year-old boy smoker says hard to get him to stop
  • The boy smokes 40 cigarettes a day
  • A national study shows number of children smoking grew 400 percent from 2001-2007

Jakarta, Indonesia (CNN) -- Two-year-old Aldi yanked on his mother's hair and squirmed in her arms.

Tears formed a small pool in the folds of his double chin.

"He's crying because he wants a cigarette," said Diana, his mother, who like many Indonesians goes by only one name.

We caught up with Aldi, who is nearly twice the weight of other babies his age (20 kilograms or 44 pounds), and his mother at Jakarta's airport.

Video of him plopped on a brightly-colored toy truck inhaling deeply and happily blowing smoke rings had circulated on the Internet last week, turning him into a local celebrity.

As we spoke to his mother, a crowd gathered and a man taunted Aldi with a cigarette, blowing smoke in his direction.

"Smoking has been a part of our culture for so long it isn't perceived as being hazardous, as causing illness, as poisonous," said Seto Mulyadi, chairman of Indonesia's National Commission for Child Protection. "A lot of adults who are around children will smoke. They will carry a baby in one hand and a cigarette in another. Even mothers don't understand that they are poisoning their children."

Mulyadi met with Aldi in Jakarta, where his mother brought him for help. He said Aldi was a bright boy, quicker than most children his age.

He also said Aldi was a victim of his environment.

Mulyadi told Diana that she needed to find other things to occupy the boy's time.

But he told us what was disturbing was that the parents motivation to get Aldi to quit wasn't stemming primarily from an understanding of the risk to his health, but more from the cost of spending four dollars a day -- Aldi smokes an average of 40 cigarettes daily.

"Well, I don't want to give him cigarettes, but what I am I supposed to do? I am confused," his mother said. "I didn't let him smoke, I even forbade him from smoking, but I was trying to stop him from getting sick."

She showed us a scar on Aldi's head, where she said he smashed his head into a wall during one of his tantrums. She said he also vomits when he can't satisfy his addiction.

"I was smoking when I was pregnant, but after I gave birth I quit," she said. "I don't remember when, but we went to the market and then suddenly he had a cigarette in his hand. Even when he was a baby and he would smell smoke he would be happy."

Both she and her husband have quit smoking. She said that Aldi had cut down his habit in Jakarta and hopefully he will soon quit.

"For us, it's not shocking at all, but it's very, very sad," Mulyadi said. "What we know about this phenomenon is only the tip of the iceberg."

He said ignorance about the dangers of smoking is compounded by aggressive advertising by tobacco companies.

Nearly 170 nations have signed a treaty calling for health warnings and other anti-smoking measures. Indonesia, however, is the only country in the Asia-Pacific region not to have ratified the World Health Organization's framework on tobacco control. Legislation has been stuck in parliament for years.

The spokesman for the Ministry of Health, Tritarayati, said: "We're still discussing it."

A study by the child protection commission shows that between 2001 and 2007, the number of children smoking between the ages of five and nine jumped 400 percent. That is tens of thousands of cases and does not take into account children like Aldi, who are under the age of five.

Mulyadi believes the number is significantly higher and child smokers are getting younger.

A few months ago, video of a four-year-old Indonesian boy smoking also appeared online. An adult male voice prompts him off camera and laughs as the child blows smoke rings calling himself a "bad boy."

That child was also helped by the National Commission for Child Protection and is now smoke free, Mulyadi said.

"We are fighting to remind the country that we really need to protect our children," Mulyadi said.

Aldi's mother asked to end to the interview after she had spoken with us for a few minutes. She said she was tired.

"I learned that I can't use force to stop him, but I need to be gentle and try to distract him."

We asked her what she had learned about her child and smoking: "I learned that my kid is smart and he doesn't have any illnesses," she said.

Diana seemed uncomfortable with the attention and the questions. Cheeks wet, Aldi waved a chubby arm goodbye to the watching crowd.