Smoke and mirrors: are cigarettes really killing Indonesians?

Faith, sir, we are here today, and gone tomorrow.
~Aphra Behn

I was recently struck by some life expectancy data on Google which shows that most Indonesians don’t live very long at all.

Progress has been made over the years but a big gap still remains in comparison to life expectancy in other countries.

But why is this so? Several things spring to mind of course. Poor health care. A bad diet – lots of sugar, fatty foods. Pollution. A lack of exercise perhaps. And of course cigarettes! In fact, smoking must be a major factor in Indonesia’s low life expectancy right?

But by how much? To find out this answer I figured it shouldn’t be too difficult since we know that nearly all smokers in Indonesia are men (76% of Indonesian men smoke) with only a very small proportion of women smokers. This should theoretically translate into a big difference in the life expectancy between Indonesian men and women (if people in Indonesia are indeed dying from smoking) – or at least a much more pronounced difference than in other countries where not many men smoke. Like Canada (where 18% of men are smokers). Or Australia (17%). Or even Singapore (a relatively low 28%).

So what do I find?

Well for Indonesia, life expectancy for men is 67.1 years, 71.2 for women (difference: only 4.1 years!!!)

For Australia, life expectancy for men is 80.9 years, 84.8 for women (difference: 3.9 years)

And for Singapore, life expectancy for men is 80.0 years, 86.1 for women (difference: 6.1 years)

So in Indonesia, the life expectancy of men is only 4.1 years less than that of women even though 3/4 of men smoke and very few women do! This is not that much different from Australia where less than 1/5 men smoke. So why isn’t the life expectancy difference between men and women bigger in Indonesia? It should at least be as large as in Singapore (6.1 years) and even much larger – say 8 years or more.

Well, I guess that what’s happening here is that many Indonesians are dying from other causes before smoking kills them. Of course this doesn’t mean that smoking is a good idea in Indonesia. But it also means that if you live in Indonesia you may not get to live much longer even if you do manage to stop smoking!


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