MALANG, Indonesia <br/> Sept. 7, 2011 — -- At a clinic in East Java, a 3-year-old boy named Satrio lies on a medical table, squirming. His father holds him and his mother looks on as a technician blows tobacco smoke through a small tube onto the boy's skin.
Satrio, whose parents say he has attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, is part of a controversial study by Sutiman Bambang Sumitro, a molecular biology professor at the University of Brawijaya in Malang, Indonesia.
Sutiman and his colleagues believe that tobacco can be manipulated to treat illnesses, including cancer.
It has been decades since anyone in the U.S. proclaimed any possible health benefits from smoking. Thousands of international studies show tobacco is addictive and harmful to health. The World Health Organization says tobacco kills about half its users, or more than 5 million people annually. Even tobacco manufacturers have admitted smoking is dangerous and addictive.
But visit Indonesia, the fourth most populous country in the world, and it can often seem like stepping into a time warp. In this sprawling archipelago of more than 245 million, there are an estimated 60 million smokers, and the number has been rising in recent years, including among those under the age of 15. An estimated 60 percent of men in Indonesia smoke.
"20/20" visited Sutiman's headquarters, a spare laboratory on the University of Brawijaya's campus and watched as he conducted an experiment. His lab assistants pumped cigarette smoke into a small glass tank containing about a half dozen white mice. The mice breathed in the smoke, their bodies shaking until they appear to pass out. The process would be repeated again and again over several months. The purpose: to gauge the possible healing effects of the smoke on the mice.
If proven successful, Sutiman and several colleagues believe that the cigarettes they use, called "Divine Cigarettes," will actually have the ability to heal certain diseases in human beings. Divine Cigarettes are cigarettes made with tobacco and filters that are specially designed by the doctor and his colleagues.
Sutiman and his colleagues believe that through nanotechnology -- essentially manipulating matter on an atomic and molecular scale -- the harmful elements in tobacco smoke can be eliminated and the healing powers of smoke isolated.
"Toxins can be modified to benefit health," said Sutiman. "It also is possible to eliminate free radicals to reduce health risks to smokers and passive smokers."
Dr. Gretha Zahar, an early proponent of Divine Cigarettes, has Ph.D in biochemistry. She has said that cigarette smoke helps remove mercury, which she says is the cause of cancer and other illnesses.
"Mercury is the cause of all illnesses. In my [Divine] cigarettes , there are scavengers that extract the mercury from the body," she said.
Their work makes Western scientists like Jin Zhang cringe.
"There is not a lot of science here. It is very scary…one would never be able to do this in the U.S.," said Zhang, a professor of chemistry at the University of Washington.
Zhang said he could not conceive of any way that nanotechnology could render cigarette smoke harmless, much less enable it to cure disease.
And he dismisses Greta's claims about mercury filtering. He says mercury inside the body is "not just sitting there in the body" for to be flushed out. He said no nanotech filter can accomplish what they Sutiman and his colleagues are claiming.
Can Tobacco Smoke Heal?
"20/20" recently caught up with Sutiman and a few of his like-minded colleagues at a conference in Malang. Sutiman said his work is not supported by any tobacco companies, and that Western criticisms of tobacco are simplistic. He insists that giving patients antioxidants and anti-inflammatories can reduce the harmful effects of tobacco.
Sutiman's subjects, like young Satrio, are treated at a clinic near his lab, where his technicians infuse patients with the smoke from Divine Cigarettes, in the hope of treating them for a variety of ailments.
At the clinic, "20/20" met Satrio and also saw another patient -- a young man -- undergoing the hour-long treatment. He lay on a medical table as smoke was suctioned into his skin, including his scalp. Smoke was also blown in his ears.
The process doesn't cause pain, though it does expose the patient to the haze of the smoke-filled room for an hour, and treatment of questionable medical value, say critics.
Sutiman believes the smoke from the Divine Cigarettes can help treat a number of behavioral disorders, including ADHD -- the condition young Satrio was being treated for -- and some cases of autism. Sutiman admitted he doesn't know yet exactly how it can help autistic children, because as of now "we are doing that in the lab."
After Satrio's treatment, ABC News correspondent Dan Harris confronted Sutiman.
"Tobacco smoke we know causes cancer. Why would you cover a child in tobacco smoke to treat anything?" he asked.
"There is difference. The smoke is different," insisted Sutiman. "We try to understand the smoke with a different angle….We then try to understand how the elements of the smoke interact each other."
Indonesia's Minister of Health, a Harvard-educated public health expert named Dr. Endang Sedyaningsih, told "20/20" she is aware of the Divine Cigarette treatment, and is considering taking action.
"That practice can be stopped, because that, it's not healing and not proven, so right now we are trying to fight this kind of practice," said Endang.
"It's difficult, but we can come to this [clinic] and say that you cannot do that, and also give, information to the people in the village that this is not the way to cure a disease."
But for now, Sutiman continues his treatments, his public appearances, and his research at a state-run university. And 3-year-old Satrio continues his treatments, his parents ever-hopeful their son will be cured.