MOH doing more to curb popularity of vaping among the young, will study NZ's cohort ban on smoking

The ministry will look at new ways to further reduce access to tobacco products and tackle vaping. PHOTO: ST FILE

SINGAPORE - Young people in Singapore no longer see smoking as glamorous and are aware of its harm, but are attracted to e-cigarettes that they are able to obtain despite them being banned here, said Senior Minister of State for Health Koh Poh Koon in Parliament on Tuesday (Jan 11).

Hence, the authorities will do more to enforce the current ban on the sale and possession of e-cigarettes and vaporisers here while continuing to review the tobacco tax rate, he said.

Dr Koh said Singapore is also open to studying New Zealand's cohort ban on smoking, and will look at how it implements the ban, its effectiveness, and how its experience could be applicable here.

He was responding to several questions raised by MPs on New Zealand's recently announced cohort ban, as well as on the topic of discouraging smoking.

Last December, New Zealand announced its plans to raise the legal smoking age by one year every year, effectively banning the sale of tobacco to people born after 2008.

Dr Koh said that the cohort ban is an attractive proposal, as it prevents young people from taking up smoking while not putting too many restrictions on older smokers.

"Then of course, as the years go by, more and more cohorts are smoking-free," he added.

But he noted that in Singapore, young people are generally not becoming smokers, unlike their counterparts in other countries.

The bigger challenge here is instead the popularity of vaping products like e-cigarettes, which are still tobacco products and are harmful to users, he said.

He added that despite the outright ban on e-cigarettes in Singapore, they have found their way here through e-commerce.

He said: "We will need to do more to enforce the current ban, to push back against the tide of popularity and increasing use."

Dr Koh noted that New Zealand is promoting vaping as an alternative to smoking.

"If vaping becomes entrenched among the younger generation, it undoes all the progress we made on curbing smoking, and will take an enormous effort over many years to curb its use."

The effectiveness of a cohort ban also depends on enforcement, said Dr Koh.

Singapore would need to introduce laws to penalise older people who are not subject to the ban but may commit abetting offences by supplying tobacco products to the affected cohorts, he said.

The Health Ministry will look at new ways to further reduce access to tobacco products and tackle vaping, particularly among our young people, he said.

It will also continue to enhance its approach to tobacco control, through public education, provision of smoking cessation services, legislation and taxation, he added.

Such tobacco control measures have been successful here, he noted.

The smoking prevalence rates in Singapore continue to fall, dropping from 11.8 per cent in 2017 to 10.1 per cent in 2020.

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The most effective measure has been tobacco excise tax, which was last increased in 2018, said Dr Koh.

"With inflation and income increases, the tax burden gets eroded over time, and we will continue to work with the Ministry of Finance to review the tobacco tax rate," he said.

He noted that in 2020, standardised packaging and enhanced graphic health warnings were required for all tobacco products sold in Singapore, to reduce the attractiveness of cigarettes, but that it is still too early to evaluate the effectiveness of the measure.

Dr Koh also noted that the Republic has progressively raised the minimum legal age for smoking from 19 years in 2019 to 21 years in January 2021.

This has contributed to a decline in smoking among younger adults aged 18 to 29 years, from 9.8 per cent in 2017 to 8.8 per cent in 2020, he said.

Smoking and second-hand smoke exposure are associated with at least 11 major medical conditions that accounted for about $180 million of healthcare costs in Singapore in 2019, he noted.

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