The minimum age for smoking will be raised to 19 on Jan 1, 2019, as Singapore intensifies its efforts to get people to stub out.
It will then be raised progressively every January until 2021, when smokers have to be 21 before they can light up. Currently, the minimum age is 18.
The amendments to the Tobacco (Control of Advertisements and Sale) Act, approved by Parliament yesterday, also ban people from buying, using and owning imitation tobacco products such as e-cigarettes, e-cigars and e-pipes.
The Straits Times understands that the ban will kick in early next year. This move extends the current ban on the sale, import and distribution of battery-powered devices that heat nicotine-infused liquids to produce a vapour for inhalation.
Parliamentary Secretary for Health Amrin Amin said the measures are to "de-normalise" the use of tobacco products over time and deny youth access to cigarettes.
Surveys show that young people get their cigarettes from friends and schoolmates, he said when tabling the Tobacco (Control of Advertisements and Sale) (Amendment) Bill for debate. Social and peer pressure also strongly influence them to start smoking, he added when explaining the move to raise the minimum smoking age to 21.
Although the Health Promotion Board's data showed that the proportion of smokers here had fallen from over 18 per cent in the 1990s to around 12 per cent to 14 per cent in the past 10 years, Mr Amrin believed it could be reduced further.
He noted that 23 per cent of the men here still smoke, much higher than in countries such as Australia (14.5 per cent) and the United States (15.6 per cent).
45% Percentage of smokers who cultivated their smoking habit between the ages of 18 and 21.
Also, about 95 per cent of smokers here took their first puff before they turned 21, Mr Amrin said. And 45 per cent cultivated the habit between 18 and 21 years old.
Research in the US found that the brains of adolescents were particularly vulnerable to nicotine addiction, Mr Amrin said, adding that "smokers who start earlier also find it harder to quit later in life".
He was also wary of imitation tobacco products, saying the Ministry of Health (MOH) considers them gateway products that get users hooked on nicotine, which then leads to cigarette use.
He dismissed claims that these products are less harmful than cigarettes. "Some of these (claims) actually come from research sponsored by the tobacco industry," he said.
To ensure the changes are effective, MOH will work with Customs and other agencies to fight illicit trade in cigarettes, he said.
Ten MPs spoke in support of the changes.
They included Ms Lee Bee Wah (Nee Soon GRC), Mr Gan Thiam Poh (Ang Mo Kio GRC) and Mr Yee Chia Hsing (Chua Chu Kang GRC), who all asked if more could be done about second-hand smoke in Housing Board estates.
Mr Yee suggested MOH work with the National Environment Agency to produce guidelines on what constitutes unhealthy levels of second-hand smoke. He proposed that residents be allowed to apply to the courts for smokers living near them to light up less often, if the smoke hits unhealthy levels.
Mr Amrin said MOH works with the Ministry of the Environment and Water Resources (MEWR) to minimise exposure to second-hand smoke in the community.
Ms Lee suggested a hotline or a mobile app be set up for people to report illegal smoking. Mr Amrin said he will pass her idea to MEWR.
When asked why not ban tobacco completely as it is such a major health scourge, Mr Amrin did not rule it out. It could happen in the longer term, "when tobacco use is at very low levels'', he said.
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