Raise legal smoking age to 21 to deter NSFs: Organisation

Non-profit group wants stricter limit to stop habit from forming during NS

Raise the legal age for smoking from 18 to 21 to deter young men from lighting up during national service - that is the proposal a non-profit organisation submitted to government agencies early last month.

Sata CommHealth chief executive K. Thomas Abraham noted that it was common for young people to pick up smoking during NS, sometimes due to peer pressure. He said: 'If we push the legal age up to 21, most people would have finished their NS by then.'

He also observed that more young women had started smoking, without providing figures.

According to the 2010 National Health Survey, the proportion of smokers among young Singaporeans aged 18 to 29 stood at 16.3 per cent in 2010 - a 33 per cent increase from 12.3 in 2004.

Dr Abraham believes that at 21, people would be better able to make informed decisions.

The world is moving in this direction, he added, citing similar campaigns in the United States to raise the legal age for smoking to 21. He also pointed out that Japan has a legal smoking age of 20, while South Korea's is 19.

The Ministry of Health (MOH) has previously said it would consult the public on tobacco control measures. An announcement about this consultation is expected soon.

Dr Lam Pin Min, chairman of the Government Parliamentary Committee for Health, said that raising the age limit could restrict access to cigarettes. Still, he does not believe it will be effective in cutting down smoking rates in the long term. About 14.3 per cent of the population smoke, according to MOH figures.

He feels a more effective strategy will be to work towards a 'tobacco- free generation', pointing to a local campaign which hopes to teach children born after the year 2000 to stay away from tobacco. Appropriate legislation to ban the sale of cigarettes to anyone born after 2000 will go hand in hand with this strategy.

'This approach will effectively prevent or discourage our next generation from picking up this bad habit of smoking,' he said.

Addiction psychiatrist Munidasa Winslow said imposing age controls would not be effective, unless it is coupled with education. He also noted that some people start when they are 14 or 15, by getting others to buy cigarettes for them. Instead, it might be more effective to provide more avenues to help smokers quit, such as free therapy and subsidising nicotine patches.

Members of the public whom The Straits Times spoke to were divided on the proposal to increase the minimum age to 21.

Said student Chee Zhong Xian, 21, who has been smoking for more than a year: 'It won't make much difference, youths can just ask their older friends to buy.'

But engineer Khalid Mas'od, 47, would welcome a ban that prevents those under 21 from buying cigarettes. He said: 'It's good for obvious reasons. I don't want my son to smoke.'

To mark World No Tobacco Day yesterday, 145 retailers nationwide and supermarket chains such as FairPrice and Cold Storage kept tobacco products off their shelves. Smokers who tried to buy cigarettes from participating retailers were given a blue-ribbon magnetic bookmark instead.

roysim@sph.com.sg

Additional reporting by Fabian Koh and Farah Ismail