Singapore has taken its first legal step towards raising the minimum smoking age from 18 to 21, with the introduction of a new Bill in Parliament yesterday.
The Bill to amend the Tobacco (Control of Advertisements and Sale) Act will also make it illegal for people to own imitation tobacco products such as e-cigarettes.
Currently, it is against the law to import, distribute, sell or offer to sell such products. With the proposed changes, owners of e-cigarettes can be fined up to $2,000.
The Bill, tabled by Health Minister Gan Kim Yong, will be debated at a later date.
In an explanatory statement attached to the Bill, the Health Ministry said that raising the minimum legal age is intended "to reduce, with a view to ultimately eliminating, the opportunities for the young to be tempted and take up smoking before attaining 21 years of age".
In Singapore, the years between 18 and 21 are when nearly half of smokers start to light up on a regular basis. The average age at which people start to smoke has also gone down, from 17 in 2001 to 16 in 2013.
Mr Louis Ng (Nee Soon GRC), a former smoker, told The Straits Times the move is a "crucial step forward".
"I started smoking when I was about 18... Research by the World Health Organisation shows people who don't pick up smoking before 21 are unlikely to start," he said.
Medical experts welcomed the draft law, but said it should be complemented by other measures.
These include more prominent public campaigns like deterrent advertisements on buses, and higher taxes like in Australia, where a packet of cigarettes can cost over A$30 (S$32), said Sata CommHealth chief executive K. Thomas Abraham. Stronger enforcement action is also required, he added.
Dr Tan Kok Kuan, resident doctor at Dr Tan & Partners @ Novena, said there is a case to be made for allowing certain types of e-cigarettes with tobacco but no flavourings, as these give smokers the nicotine fix but are less likely to entice young people.
"Being 100 per cent smoke-free is not possible," he said. "It makes sense to allow products which are not healthy, but less harmful than the ones we currently have."
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