In Short

5 reasons why S'pore needs to ban tobacco sales to those born from 2010

Singapore can and should consider a TFG approach similar to New Zealand, which prohibits the sale of tobacco to those born after a certain year. PHOTO: ST FILE

In Short brings to you selected Opinion pieces each week in bite-sized portions. This is a shorter version of the full commentary.

Under a new law to be enacted in New Zealand this year, no one born in the country after 2008 will be able to be sold combustible cigarettes in their lifetime.

The restrictions will be rolled out in stages from 2024, beginning with a sharp reduction in the number of authorised sellers, followed by lowering the level of nicotine - the most addictive ingredient - in cigarettes from 2025, and the creation of a "smoke-free" generation from 2027.

In Singapore, the approach has been to roll out smoking controls at a steady clip since the 1970s - starting with a ban on tobacco advertising and smoking in all cinemas and on buses - although it stopped short of an outright ban on tobacco sales.

But here is why Singapore can and should consider a tobacco-free generation (TFG) approach similar to New Zealand, which prohibits the sale of tobacco to those born after a certain year:

1. It brings down smoking prevalence

Smoking prevalence in Singapore shrank from 18.3 per cent in 1992 to 11.8 per cent in 2017, 10.6 per cent in 2019, and 10.1 per cent in 2020 - just shy of the 10 per cent target set for 2020.

But the number risks plateauing, and there are still a substantial number of male smokers. According to the 2020 national population health survey, the prevalence of daily smoking among Singapore residents aged 18 to 74 years was 17 per cent in men and 3.4 per cent in women. Smoking prevalence is higher among males in all age groups.

There is no risk-free level of exposure to second-hand smoke. More aggressive efforts are needed to stop people from picking up the habit because of the harmful effects of passive smoking, and its impact on healthcare costs and productivity.

2. It minimises hardship to current smokers

Those who are already legally smoking will not be prevented from doing so.

This aligns with the tobacco industry's assertions that it does not seek to attract new smokers, only to keep existing market share.

3. There is no safe minimum age for smoking

The current approach of setting a minimum legal age for smokers sends the misleading message that there is an acceptable age for smoking, when there is no safe age.

Minimum-age laws risk having young people perceive the law as being about youth control, which drives rebellion. Instead, TFG makes it easier to persuade youth that tobacco is too dangerous at any age, and is permitted only to those already tobacco-dependent who struggle to quit.

4. It minimises peer influence

Peer influence is a key source of smoking initiation. Some studies show that adolescents are about twice as likely to initiate or continue smoking if their peers or friends smoke.

They then spend more time with peers who smoke or have better access to cigarettes, further increasing their likelihood of continuing to smoke.

But if not enough peers are willing to share and buy cigarettes from one another, then it is harder for the novice smoker to justify buying a packet.

Over time, the age gap between young persons and the visible smoking population widens, facilitating ever-lower smoking prevalence among younger cohorts.

5. Black markets exist no matter how strict the law is

One argument against anti-smoking measures is that they lead to a thriving black market in tobacco products. But tobacco products were already smuggled and illegally peddled at each stage of ratcheting up of restrictions in Singapore.

In fact, Singapore is more well placed than New Zealand to carry out TFG, as tobacco retailers are already licensed here. This makes it easier to enforce the no-sale policy to the tobacco-free generation. Also, unlike the new laws in New Zealand which will not restrict vape sales, it is illegal to sell or own vapes in Singapore.

It is possible to make the law here cover both vaping and non-combustible tobacco products so that the next generation - such as those born from 2010, and who are at most only 11 years old now and would hardly be smoking or vaping - will never become addicted to nicotine.

Singapore should therefore implement a gradual, but ultimately absolute measure by working towards a tobacco-free generation for children born from Jan 1, 2010.

Making the intent clear now, with a plan to phase it in over three to four years, will give businesses and habitual smokers time to adjust.

Before TFG laws are adopted, more can be done to:

  • Raise the age limit further
  • Increase tobacco taxes
  • Ban flavours in tobacco products
  • Reduce the number of licences and licence renewals
  • Place more curbs on second-hand smoke.

These would come on top of existing efforts in public education, smoking cessation programmes, legislation to control tobacco advertising and sales of cigarettes to minors, and taxes.

For more on the experiences of other countries with tobacco controls, and why Singapore should consider the TFG approach, read the full commentary here.

What you said

We sought your views on whether a tobacco-free generation approach should be adopted in Singapore. Here's what you said: 

Tobacco should ideally be banned for everyone. However because it's so addictive, that's not feasible. Denied addicts would suffer and create the conditions for a black market. The solution is therefore grandfathering - don't do everything at once, but phase it in progressively over time.

Compare this to car emissions controls which are tightened from time to time. Existing cars that would fail the new standards are not taken off the road, but all new cars sold must meet the new standards. Likewise, TFG grandfathers the customers. Ideally, it would be accompanied by an education campaign explaining this reasoning, and a campaign for those born earlier who now need assistance to quit.

- I-Chun Liu

The research is very clear: cigarette smoke is a leading cause of preventable death and can result in cancers of the mouth, throat, œsophagus, larynx, lungs, liver, pancreas, stomach, kidney, bladder, colon, rectum and cervix. Many from vulnerable groups such as babies, toddlers, children, the elderly, pregnant women, people battling cancer, cancer survivors, etc. are exposed to secondhand cigarette smoke on a daily basis. 

This is a disease of addiction. If we have an opportunity through the TFG model to allow current smokers their choice, and to protect future generations from becoming addicts, why are we not jumping at the chance?

- Tammie Quai

Tobacco kills more than 8 million people each year, of which 1.2 million are, unfortunately, non-smokers. To put this in perspective, Covid-19 led to around 5.5 million deaths over two years of the pandemic. It is hence totally baffling and hypocritical for us to impose lockdowns, develop vaccines in record time and assemble expert panels to combat something that sees fewer than the number of tobacco deaths. It's time to act.

- Adrian Koh

Cigarette-smoking and purchase are already heavily regulated. To completely cut off a generation from smoking is a bit far-fetched.  This is too intrusive, similar to stopping residents from smoking inside their houses due to second-hand smoke. We should instead consider raising (the minimum legal age). 

When we talk about regulating smoking or most other behaviours, we are talking about rights. No one has a universal right to smoke anywhere, but also no one has the universal right to deny others the opportunity to smoke throughout their lives. The role of the Government is to provide succinct, unbiased information to guide decentralised choices among alternative rules. 

- Francis Cheng

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