Number of shops selling cigarettes at record low

Cigarette packets displayed on a shelf behind the counter in a minimart in Toa Payoh North.
Cigarette packets displayed on a shelf behind the counter in a minimart in Toa Payoh North. PHOTO: ST FILE

Figure may drop further from August, when display ban on tobacco products kicks in

The number of shops selling cigarettes and tobacco products has tumbled to a record low number, and the figure could be further trimmed with a display ban set to take effect in August.

Last year, there were 4,764 retail outlets that sold tobacco, based on the number of licences issued by the Health Sciences Authority (HSA).

This is the lowest number since 1998, when the Government introduced laws that required all tobacco sellers to be licensed, the authority told The Straits Times.

It is a far cry from 1999, when the country had a peak of 7,650 places selling tobacco.

The number of tobacco-licensed shops has been dwindling in recent years.

  • 4,764 RETAIL OUTLETS SELLING TOBACCO IN 2016

    7,650 RETAIL OUTLETS SELLING TOBACCO IN 1999

In 2011, there were 5,555 such places. This fell to 5,133 two years later, and slumped to 4,892 in 2015.

An HSA spokesman said the decrease could be "due to commercial reasons such as supply and demand factors".

The downward trend was expected, given the tougher measures implemented by regulatory bodies to curb smoking, especially among the young, said Sata CommHealth chief executive K. Thomas Abraham, an anti-smoking advocate.

The Ministry of Health adopts a "comprehensive mix of strategies" to reduce tobacco use, said a spokesman. This includes public education, smoking cessation services, legislation on tobacco advertising and sales to minors, and taxation.

Tobacco licensing rules have also been tightened in recent years.

Since 2011, businesses that sell mainly health-related or youth-centric products have been barred from selling tobacco. Retail licence fees for new applicants were also raised last year from $360 to $400.

A licence is needed for each shop, so a company that has 10 branches selling tobacco will need 10 licences, which are renewed every year. The products covered include cigarettes, ang hoon, beedies and cigars.

Come August, a point-of-sale display ban will kick in, a move that is expected to hurt sales as shop owners will not be allowed to keep tobacco products in plain sight.

Such measures have made the tobacco business unattractive, said Mr Colin Schooling, a consultant for the tobacco industry.

"When you smoke, people look at you like you are a delinquent. It's scorned here," he added.

His company, M'exim Singapore, set up more than 20 years ago, used to deal in the import and export of tobacco. But he stopped doing this about eight years ago.

"The controls on tobacco are very strict and it's not economically viable for companies to expand in the Singapore market," he said.

Also, tobacco has a shelf life of only about six months, he added.

Project manager Daren Pua, 36, has no fixed retailer when it comes to buying cigarettes. "I'll see what's nearby," said Mr Pua, who has been smoking for over 10 years.

While the falling number of retail points has not been noticeable to him, he noted that it is part of a bigger web of inconveniences that has been growing over the years.

Such inconveniences, besides health concerns, are partly why he intends to give up smoking.

Having fewer places to buy tobacco may benefit smokers who want to quit.

"Our environment impacts our behaviour. Seeing cigarettes being lit up by smokers outside tobacco retail outlets does encourage someone to light up even if he is trying to quit," said Associate Professor Augustine Tee, chief of respiratory and critical care medicine at Changi General Hospital.

Frequent exposure to tobacco sellers is commonly associated with increased cravings, added the senior consultant respiratory physician.

But proximity to tobacco sellers is "not significant enough" to deter smokers entirely, noted Prof Tee.

"Smokers may buy cigarettes in bulk instead of single packs to make up for the extra travelling," he said.

Ms Tan Mei Tng, who runs minimart Good Price Centre in Bukit Merah, said cigarette sales have stagnated in the past few years.

She may stop selling cigarettes if sales decline significantly. "I will assess the situation at that time, and go with the flow," she said.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 27, 2017, with the headline 'Number of shops selling cigarettes at record low'. Print Edition | Subscribe