Good to have support for those who want to quit smoking

Smoking rates in Singapore have fallen dramatically since the 1970s, when tobacco taxes were first levied and strict laws passed on smoking in public places.

But to wrestle the numbers down just a few percentage points to the ideal 12 per cent - the rate that was deemed achievable in statistical modelling - by 2020 will take an all-round effort, said Professor Lee Hin Peng of the Saw Swee Hock School of Public Health.

This includes motivating people to quit smoking, as well as preventing young people from even picking up the habit.

"Essentially, we should seek to de-normalise the practice of smoking in our society," he said.

Between 1977 and 1998, smoking rates fell from 23 per cent to 15 per cent. In 2001, they dipped further to around 14 per cent, but have changed little since then.

Starting off with the introduction of tobacco taxes in 1972, smoking rates dropped further with various anti-smoking campaigns, the banning of tobacco advertising and the launch of counselling service Quitline.

In recent years, the authorities have stepped up efforts to grapple with the problem, including a ban on shisha in 2014, then banning other tobacco products such as smokeless cigarettes.

Part of the rationale for doing so was to prevent these from becoming "gateway" products that eventually lead people to become regular smokers.

"When people start on these products in other countries, many end up using conventional cigarettes because the nicotine addiction sets in," said Ms Vasuki Utravathy, deputy director of the Health Promotion Board's strategic planning and collaborations department.

Added Prof Lee: "It is clear that the tobacco industry does deliberately target younger consumers by aggressively pushing highly addictive tobacco products... which can result in a lifetime of tobacco dependence."

Smokers in Singapore are overwhelmingly male, with 23 per cent of men smoking compared to 4 per cent of women in 2013.

In the last Student Health Survey, conducted in 2012, 6 per cent of young people aged between 13 and 18 said they had smoked at least once in the past month.

"If you look at Singapore, we've moved away from very harsh measures to saying that the social environment also matters," Ms Vasuki said.

"Intentionally setting up a supportive environment, I think, helps smokers want to step forward on their own."

Linette Lai

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 08, 2016, with the headline 'Good to have support for those who want to quit smoking'. Print Edition | Subscribe