Curbing teen smoking 'must go beyond raising minimum age'

A file photo of a man smoking a cigarette.
A file photo of a man smoking a cigarette. PHOTO: ST FILE

Teens below the age of 18 have been barred from smoking legally since 1993 - but the data two decades later tells a different story.

In 2013, the average age when smokers took their first puff was just 16, according to the National Health Surveillance Survey.

Said Mr Vincent Tng, 21, a non-smoker serving full-time national service: "I have friends who started smoking as young as 14 or 15 - they just got their friends to buy cigarettes for them. There are contraband cigarettes around, so you don't even have to go to a proper shop."

Experts said the discrepancy shows that efforts to curb teen smoking must go beyond raising the minimum legal age. Issues such as raising awareness and enforcement cannot be sidelined.

Said Sata CommHealth chief executive and anti-smoking advocate K. Thomas Abraham: "We should have a slew of measures that go concurrently with raising the minimum age. How are these young people able to get cigarettes? How do we plug the existing loopholes?"

Last week, the Ministry of Health (MOH) said it plans to raise the minimum legal smoking age from 18 to 21. In Singapore, these are the years when nearly half of smokers become regular smokers. The idea is to put cigarettes out of the reach of underage smokers, who tend to obtain them through their social circles.

A town in the United States known as Needham is often held up as a success story of how this measure can reduce smoking rates.

In 2005, it increased the legal smoking age from 18 to 21. Smoking rates among under-18s dropped by nearly half within five years - from 13 per cent in 2006 to 7 per cent in 2010. At least 215 other locales in the US have followed suit in recent years, including New York City, Boston and California.

Dr Chia Shi-Lu, who chairs the Government Parliamentary Committee for Health, said: "I don't think that in itself will be enough... but raising the age would help interdict further access to cigarettes amongst the young."

To complement the move, experts suggested increasing the size of graphic health warnings on cigarette packets, introducing plain packaging to make cigarettes look as nondescript as possible and even raising the tobacco tax.

According to the World Health Organisation, increasing tobacco prices in high-income countries by 10 per cent is estimated to reduce consumption by 4 per cent, said Professor Chia Kee Seng, dean of the Saw Swee Hock School of Public Health at the National University of Singapore.

Tobacco taxes were last raised in 2014, from $352 per kg to $388 per kg of tobacco, or 1,000 cigarettes. It was reported that out of the $12 for an average pack of cigarettes, $8.50 goes to the Government as tax.

Prof Chia said tobacco taxes should be raised further if smoking remains a serious issue, even after the age limit is raised.

At the same time, said Dr Abraham, even more work needs to be done to drive home the anti-smoking message among young people, as "the long-term effects of smoking are not always immediately apparent to a young smoker".

Nee Soon MP Louis Ng, who used to smoke, said enforcement needs to be stepped up to ensure cigarettes are not sold to underage teens, and more has to be done to change the image of smoking.

"They think it's cool to smoke and we need to tackle that mindset with a series of public awareness campaigns," he said.

Management executive Catherine Ruth Jeyaseelan, 34, suggested involving parents too. "Sometimes parents smoke at home and kids will get curious, they might try it when their parents are out."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 14, 2017, with the headline 'Curbing teen smoking 'must go beyond raising minimum age''. Print Edition | Subscribe