Identify driving factors to reduce smoking rates

Singapore's decades-long battle against smoking has seen a whole range of measures being introduced.

These include raising the price of cigarettes and the minimum age for smoking, area bans and alternative-product bans - the list goes on.

The recent Budget presented by Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat announced yet another 10 per cent tax hike on all tobacco products.

One wonders if these measures are truly working. What if they are pushing smokers towards more illegal cigarette sources and alternatives?

When tobacco taxes were raised by 10 per cent in 2014, cigarette smuggling hit record numbers (3 million packets of contraband cigarettes seized in 2014; Feb 4, 2015).

Since then, several cases of attempted tobacco smuggling have been reported in the media.

This includes an attempt to smuggle chewing tobacco into Singapore last year.

One could make a connection between price hikes and these illegal activities.

Perhaps the answer to Singapore's smoking problem is not in harsher punishments or higher taxes, but in trying to understand the driving factors behind the smoking behaviour.

The various measures that are in place effectively aim to discourage people from picking up smoking.

However, less seems to be done to help existing smokers kick the habit.As with treating any kind of substance addiction, identifying the social factors influencing smokers may be crucial in understanding why they are not able to overcome their addiction.

For example, it is important to understand how social interactions may influence smoking behaviour or identify the kinds of social environments where smoking is most prevalent. Is it peer pressure? Is it stress?

Programmes by the Health Promotion Board such as the I Quit 28-Day Countdown is still limited in its reach in that it offers smokers a general ''quit cold turkey'' approach. It does not address the underlying social factors.

If Singapore hopes to further reduce smoking rates, identifying the social factors driving smoking behaviour is crucial in not only understanding why people keep smoking, but also what might help them deal with their addiction more effectively.

Glen Kilian Koh Eng Kai

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 16, 2018, with the headline 'Identify driving factors to reduce smoking rates'. Subscribe