Proposal to raise smoking age from 18 to 21

The health authorities are proposing to raise the minimum age of smoking from 18 to 21, and ban menthol and other flavoured cigarettes to step up their efforts to discourage people from lighting up.

The Health Promotion Board (HPB), along with the Health Ministry and Health Sciences Authority, yesterday began a 12-week public consultation to get views on these proposed rules.

Other measures being considered include having the same plain packaging for different brands, and putting bigger graphic health warnings on packets.

There are already restrictions on smoking here, which include curbs on advertising and a ban on lighting up in public places. Earlier this month, shops were also told they would have to stop displaying tobacco products in 2017.

Singapore already has one of the lowest smoking rates in the world, with the smoking rate falling from 18.3 per cent in 1992 to 13.3 in 2013. The aim is to cut this to 12 per cent by 2020, the HPB said yesterday.

The latest proposed curbs are based on international studies, among them those from American, British and Canadian institutions.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) reported in 2008 that people who do not start smoking before the age of 21 are unlikely to start. The authorities here are considering making it illegal for anyone below 21 to buy, be in possession of and use tobacco products.

Currently, health warnings carrying graphic images, such as of decaying teeth and the effects of cancer, must take up 50 per cent of the front and back of tobacco packaging.

The WHO, however, has recommended increasing this.

Flavoured cigarettes, which are popular among youth, can also mislead users into thinking that the sticks are not as harmful "as the flavours cover up the actual harshness of tobacco", according to the HPB.

Last year, an independent review commissioned by the British government showed that branding and packaging on tobacco products can make them more appealing, especially to the young.

Australia is so far the only country to have implemented standardised packaging. New Zealand, Ireland, France and Britain have announced their intention to introduce such packaging.

But tobacco firms have argued against such a move, claiming, for instance, that standardised packaging is easier to counterfeit and may spur an increase in illegal cigarettes.

Mr Jonathan Ng, regulatory affairs manager for tobacco firm Philip Morris Singapore, told The Straits Times that the proposed measures will "bring about unintended economic and social consequences due to illicit trade".

He added that the proposed packaging "violates international laws and trade agreements".

Dr Wong Seng Weng, medical director of The Cancer Centre, believes raising the minimum age will make a difference. "At 21, youth are less likely to be subjected to peer pressure and can better understand smoking's harmful effects," he said.

Ms Chua Shu Juan, 30, said she smokes only menthol cigarettes as she cannot stand the taste of regular ones. "If I cannot buy menthol cigarettes... I'll take the opportunity to try quitting," added the civil servant.

The public can give their views through HPB's website until March 29.

This article was first published on Dec 30, 2015.
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