Turning up the heat on smoking

Singapore will have one of the strictest anti-smoking regimes in the world if new proposals to curb tobacco use are accepted.

On Tuesday, the health authorities began a 12-week public consultation on four measures they are considering.

These are: raising the minimum age for buying, possessing and using tobacco products from 18 to 21; banning flavoured cigarettes, such as menthol ones; using the same plain packaging for all brands; and increasing the size of graphic warnings on packets.

The goal, said the Health Promotion Board, is to drive Singapore's smoking rate down to 12 per cent by 2020 - after it had already dropped from 18.3 per cent in 1992 to 13.3 per cent in 2013.

Most countries do not have a minimum age for smoking. Instead, age limits are focused on how old someone has to be to buy cigarette products legally - Singapore goes further than most as it is illegal for those under 18 to puff in public.

Most countries set their minimum age for buying tobacco products at 18, although Kuwait and Sri Lanka have theirs at 21. People under 20 are not allowed to buy or smoke cigarettes in Japan. And New York raised its age limit for tobacco purchases to 21 two years ago, joining several other US states such as Utah and Colorado.

Many health advocates believe raising the age limit will significantly reduce the number of new smokers - since most pick up the habit before the age of 21. Anecdotally, many male smokers here say they pick up the habit while doing national service.

The ban on flavoured cigarettes, which can make up more than half of sales, is also catching on. Brazil became the first country to outlaw such cigarettes in 2012. Several Canadian states, such as Ontario and Alberta, have also stamped them out. European Union countries have agreed to ban them in 2020.

Anti-smoking advocates say that smokers opt for menthol cigarettes as these mask the foul smell and harsh taste of normal cigarettes, and even lead to some inhaling the smoke more deeply. They also believe more young people would not pick up smoking if they had no access to menthol cigarettes.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 31, 2015, with the headline 'Turning up the heat on smoking'. Print Edition | Subscribe