Committee of Supply debate: Ministry of Health

Raising minimum legal age for smoking: Making it harder for youth to light up

Student Chrystine Wong, who drew her first puff at 15 after a friend gave her a cigarette, agrees that raising the legal age would be beneficial. However, the 23-year-old, who quit the habit two years ago, believes that teens will still find a way to
Student Chrystine Wong, who drew her first puff at 15 after a friend gave her a cigarette, agrees that raising the legal age would be beneficial. However, the 23-year-old, who quit the habit two years ago, believes that teens will still find a way to get their hands on cigarettes if they really want to do so.ST PHOTO: LAU FOOK KONG

Raising legal smoking age to 21 will protect young people during more susceptible years

The minimum legal age for smoking will be raised from 18 to 21, to make it harder for young people to get hold of cigarettes at a time when they are more vulnerable to peer pressure and the addictive effects of nicotine.

The Health Ministry outlined several reasons for taking this step, including the fact that regular tobacco use is usually established between 18 and 21 years of age.

Singaporeans are also starting to smoke at a younger age. In 2013, the average age a smoker began lighting up was 16, compared with 17 in 2001, according to the National Health Surveillance Survey.

Tobacco use is linked to a host of health problems, from cancer to emphysema to heart disease. In 2015, six Singapore residents died prematurely each day from smoking-related diseases.

Singapore is not the first to introduce such a measure, as some parts of the United States and countries such as Sri Lanka have enforced a higher minimum smoking age of 21 too.

 

It also comes as the number of tobacco retail outlets in Singapore has fallen to a record low, and on the heels of a shisha ban that took full effect in August last year.

Currently, retailers who sell tobacco to those under 18 may be fined up to $5,000 for the first offence, and $10,000 for repeated breaches. Their licence may also be revoked by the Health Sciences Authority, which enforces tobacco control laws here.

Those below 18 caught using, buying or possessing tobacco products can be fined up to $300.

Supporting the move, Professor Chia Kee Seng, dean of the Saw Swee Hock School of Public Health at the National University of Singapore, noted: "Tobacco companies are known to target youth in their marketing to get them addicted as early as possible. Youths are also more susceptible to nicotine dependency."

Several studies have found that adolescent brains are more vulnerable to the rewarding effects of nicotine, the addictive substance found in tobacco products.

Dr K. Thomas Abraham, chief executive of Sata CommHealth, said the latest measure will "effectively challenge perceptions of tobacco as a 'normal' product". "At 21, adolescents become young adults who are more mature, more rational and less impulsive," added Dr Abraham, an anti-smoking advocate.

The move also aligns with the stance of the World Health Organisation, which stated in a 2008 report that people who do not start smoking before 21 are unlikely to ever begin.

Two-thirds of underage smokers in Singapore obtain their tobacco from friends and schoolmates, according to the latest Student Health Surveys (2014-2016).

With the new rule, the number of legal buyers in an underage person's social circle is expected to be reduced, said the ministry.

Student Chrystine Wong, 23, who drew her first puff at 15 after a friend gave her a cigarette, agrees that raising the legal age would be beneficial.

"It gives you more time to think before you can buy your own pack of cigarettes," she said.

Yet Ms Wong, who stopped smoking two years ago, said she and her schoolmates were able to get cigarettes through their older siblings.

"If you really want to do it, there's no way anyone can stop you," she noted.

Mr Muhd Hafiz, 33, started smoking at 14 under the influence of his schoolmates and, by 18, was puffing 20 cigarettes a day. They would make modified photocopies of identity cards to dupe tobacco sellers.

The handyman, who quit smoking last year after signing up for the Health Promotion Board's I Quit programme, is unconvinced that the legal age matters that much.

Echoing Ms Wong, he said: "There is always a way for kids to get cigarettes - unless you ban them."


Correction note:  An earlier version of the story stated that regular tobacco use is usually established between 18 and 20 years of age. This is incorrect. It should be 18 and 21 years of age. We are sorry for the error.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 10, 2017, with the headline 'Making it harder for youth to light up'. Print Edition | Subscribe