The Straits Times says

Curbing the urge to light up

The ultimate aim of effort to eradicate risks arising from tobacco use should be to lead to fewer people taking to the habit and suffering from the medical effects of doing so. However, so entrenched is smoking that progress has been slow. Despite being the leading preventable cause of death in the United States, it has taken over 100 years for anti-smoking initiatives to make headway there. Just three decades ago, the insistence of smokers of their right to puff forced all to breathe harmful air in crowded airplanes. And the World Health Organisation's Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, the first global public health treaty, came into force only in 2005.

Only a few countries have taken decisive steps to curb smoking, like Bhutan (which completely bans the sale of tobacco), New Zealand (which has committed to a goal of becoming "smoke free" by 2025), and Ireland, Norway and Sweden (which have strong legislation protecting non-smokers). Authorities elsewhere have been loath to go overboard lest it provokes a reaction from smokers, and some non-smokers too.

Recent proposals to discourage smoking here, such as raising the minimum age of smoking from 18 to 21 and banning flavoured cigarettes (supported by the health authorities here), are best viewed as another step in efforts to discourage people, especially the young, from picking up that first tempting cigarette.

Some have gone further, to set their sights on becoming a smoke-free nation before too long. That is defined in New Zealand as being free from the exposure to smoking and having a smoking prevalence of less than 5 per cent. It does not represent a ban on smoking but is a framework to make the sale and supply of tobacco difficult. In comparison, the Health Promotion Board wants to cut the smoking rate here to 12 per cent by 2020. Singapore already has one of the lowest rates in the world - the percentage of smokers here was 13.3 in 2013. But should the board aim higher? After all, the goal of a one percentage point improvement over seven years is hardly breathtaking.

A common concern about strict legislation is its impact on economic activity and personal liberties. It is argued that current restrictions - like a ban on smoking in public places -are sufficient. Tobacco manufacturers and diehard smokers are quick to label firmer measures as "heavy-handed" and to argue for more to be done via public education.

Yet, the majority who are non-smokers are forced to breathe in second-hand tobacco smoke which contains more than 4,000 chemicals, including 69 known carcinogens. Steps like ventilation, designated smoking areas, packaging and voluntary restraint will help, and should be redoubled. But most effective of all will be measures that put people off the idea of lighting up to begin with.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 07, 2016, with the headline 'Curbing the urge to light up'. Print Edition | Subscribe