More can be done to stub out smoking, says expert

People having a smoke at Marina Bay Sands. There has been a number of changes to Singapore's anti-smoking policies as the Government seeks to get people to quit the habit. Although the number of adults smoking fell progressively from 23 per cent in 1
People having a smoke at Marina Bay Sands. There has been a number of changes to Singapore's anti-smoking policies as the Government seeks to get people to quit the habit. Although the number of adults smoking fell progressively from 23 per cent in 1977 to 13.3 per cent in 2013, it has been stuck at that level since.ST PHOTO: MARK CHEONG

Raising minimum legal smoking age would be a good move, says don

The latest slew of changes to Singapore's anti-smoking policies comes as progress slows in the Government's drive to get more people to quit the habit.

But an expert has said that even more can be done to push more people to stop smoking. Although the number of adults smoking fell progressively from 23 per cent in 1977 to 13.3 per cent in 2013, it has been stuck at that level since.

Since June 30, food establishments have not been allowed to apply for new smoking corners, and from Aug 1, there will be a ban on the point-of-sale display of tobacco products.

In addition, it was announced in March that legislation raising the minimum legal age for smoking from 18 to 21 will be proposed in Parliament within a year.

And a smoking ban will kick in in Orchard Road next year, with smoking allowed only in limited designated outdoor areas.

The National Environment Agency, which announced some of these measures, said the ban in Orchard Road was to protect people from second-hand smoke in an area of "high human traffic".

Professor Chia Kee Seng, dean of the National University of Singapore's Saw Swee Hock School of Public Health, said raising the minimum legal smoking age would be a good move.

Studies have shown that people who do not start smoking before 21 years of age are unlikely to ever begin. Correspondingly, the younger the people are when they first start smoking, the more likely they are to become habitual smokers.

Prof Chia said Singapore should follow Australia and other countries that require the plain packaging of cigarettes, removing the power of branding to give the perception that smoking is acceptable.

As for those who are already hooked, Prof Chia warned against alternatives that claim to be less harmful.

One relatively new kid on the block is the heated cigarette, which electrically heats tobacco to a few hundred deg C without burning it, releasing tiny particles containing nicotine that are inhaled.

Smoking giant Philip Morris has claimed that its heated cigarettes release 90 per cent less toxins than regular cigarettes.

But Prof Chia said: "Ten per cent of a highly toxic product still makes it highly dangerous. Simply put, there is no safe level of smoking."

He said that products such as heated cigarettes and other kinds of electronic cigarettes - many of which are banned here but continue to be purchased online by smokers - continue to make it difficult to achieve the ultimate aim, which is to "de-normalise smoking".

Singapore is not the only country having a hard time getting people to stop smoking.

For example, Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike is pushing for a smoking ban ahead of the 2020 Olympics, but faces strong opposition from pro-smoking politicians, restaurateurs and Japan Tobacco which is one-third government-owned.

Prof Chia said that while smokers have the right to smoke, it must be balanced with responsibility.

According to the Health Promotion Board, the social cost of smoking in 1997 ranged from $673 million to $839 million. The social cost includes payments for healthcare that is a result of smoking.

Prof Chia said: "If I am a smoker... I will smoke where no one is exposed to second-hand smoke and I will make sure that I do not encourage others to smoke.

"When I get cancer, heart attack or any other smoking-related ailments, I should bear the full cost of my treatment, and not expect any government healthcare subsidies."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on July 09, 2017, with the headline 'More can be done to stub it out, says expert'. Print Edition | Subscribe