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Smokers' wild west: Big tobacco ignores Indonesia deadline for graphic warnings on cigarettes

A man walks past new packs of cigarettes displaying pictorial health warnings that were arranged by a shop attendant for photographers, at a convenience store in Jakarta, Indonesia, Tuesday, June 24, 2014. Tobacco companies on Tuesday largely snubbed an Indonesian law requiring them to put graphic photo warnings on all cigarette packs being sold, marking another setback in a country that's home to the world's highest rate of men smokers and a wild, wild west of advertising. (AP Photo/Tatan Syuflana)

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A man walks past new packs of cigarettes displaying pictorial health warnings that were arranged by a shop attendant for photographers, at a convenience store in Jakarta, Indonesia, Tuesday, June 24, 2014. Tobacco companies on Tuesday largely snubbed an Indonesian law requiring them to put graphic photo warnings on all cigarette packs being sold, marking another setback in a country that's home to the world's highest rate of men smokers and a wild, wild west of advertising. (AP Photo/Tatan Syuflana)

JAKARTA, Indonesia - Tobacco companies largely ignored an Indonesian deadline to put graphic health warnings on all cigarette packs being sold, another setback for anti-smoking efforts in a country that's home to the world's highest rate of male smokers and a wild, wild west of advertising.

Despite having a year and a half to prepare warning photos that are to cover 40 per cent of cigarette packs, most tobacco companies failed to meet Tuesday's deadline, according to the National Commission for Child Protection. It found little sign of change in brands being sold in Jakarta and 11 other cities across the sprawling archipelago.

"This clearly indicates that the cigarette industry has defied Indonesian law," said commission chair Arist Merdeka Sirait. "The government has been defeated by the cigarette industry."

Only 409 of the more than 3,300 brands owned by 672 companies nationwide had registered the photos they plan to use on their products as of Monday, according to the Food and Drug Monitoring Agency. They were given a choice of five images last June.

Health Minister Nafsiah Mboi said companies that missed the deadline will be issued warnings, and those that fail to comply could eventually be fined up to $42,000 and face five years in prison.

Indonesia's biggest cigarette producer, Philip Morris-owned Sampoerna, said it began distributing products with the new warnings on Monday, but needed more time to clear out existing stock. But the labels must be displayed on shelves by Tuesday, Mboi said.

"We believe the government will implement the regulation consistently and fairly, so as to realize a climate of healthy competition among cigarette manufacturers, as well as providing clear information about the impact of smoking on health," Sampoerna spokesman Tommy Hersyaputera said.

Indonesia has a long history of delaying tobacco regulations. The graphic warnings stem from health regulations that passed in 2009, though it wasn't until 18 months ago that a specific decree was issued for implementation. And Indonesia is one of the few countries that has not joined a World Health Organization tobacco treaty. The order has taken years to reach President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono's desk, and he still has not signed it. He will leave office in October after elections next month.

Tobacco control is particularly contentious in Indonesia, the world's fifth-largest cigarette producer and a growth market for the industry. Farmers hold rowdy protests when restrictions are proposed, and lobbyists maintain tight connections with politicians in a government rife with graft.

Many forms of tobacco advertising long banned in the West remain ubiquitous here. Towering billboards and LED screens scream messages such as, "Marlboro Ice Blast ... crush it, unleash it." At the main international airport, a bright blue advertisement for Clas mild cigarettes urges, "Act Now! Talk less do more." Tobacco commercials are still on television, and although new regulations ban sponsorship of events, some companies have continued that practice.

Tobacco-related illnesses kill at least 200,000 each year in the country, which has a population of around 240 million. A national survey in 2012 found that 67 per cent of all males over age 15 smoke — the world's highest rate — while 35 per cent of the total population lights up, surpassed only by Russia.

Most Indonesian men buy strong and pungent kreteks, filled with a mix of tobacco and cloves. But so-called white cigarettes, such as U.S.-based Philip Morris International's Marlboro, have become more popular in recent years. All brands are cheap, selling for about $1 a pack, making it easy for children to take up the habit.

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Associated Press writer Niniek Karmini contributed to this report.

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Follow Mason on Twitter at twitter.com/MargieMasonAP

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