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Legal age for smoking to be raised to 21 ‘progressively’ over 3 years

SINGAPORE — Changes to laws, to raise the legal age for smoking from 18 to 21, were passed on Tuesday, as Members of Parliament (MPs) called for even more stringent measures to lower the smoking rate. The proposals included lifting the legal age immediately and putting a blanket ban on tobacco products.

SINGAPORE — Changes to laws, to raise the legal age for smoking from 18 to 21, were passed on Tuesday, as Members of Parliament (MPs) called for even more stringent measures to lower the smoking rate. The proposals included lifting the legal age immediately and putting a blanket ban on tobacco products.

Recognising that it will take time for smokers to successfully quit the habit, the authorities will raise the legal age “progressively” over three years — to 19 in 2019, 20 in 2020 and 21 in 2021. This is to minimise the impact on the 12,000 smokers between the ages of 19 and 21 now, Parliamentary Secretary for Health Amrin Amin said.

The Health Ministry’s studies found that close to 95 per cent of smokers had their first puff before they turned 21, while 45 per cent became regular smokers between their 18th and 21st birthdays.

During the debate, Dr Chia Shi-Lu and Ms Joan Pereira, both MPs for Tanjong Pagar GRC, argued that putting into force the new legal age over three years is unnecessary and “too gradual”.

Dr Chia, an orthopaedic surgeon, said: “If someone who has just turned 18 has also just started smoking, this gradual implementation will continue to allow him to buy and use cigarettes until he is well and truly hooked. If we stop him or her at this early phase, it may be easier for them to quit.”

Ms Pereira said that this stage-by-stage approach may tempt those young people who are “exempted” to seize their chance to have their first puff earlier, since they are among the “last batches” of those who get to smoke legally below the age of 21.

TOTAL BAN

Mr Alex Yam, MP for Marsiling-Yew Tee GRC, even suggested banning smoking for all: “I am confused as to why we should decide on a phased approach to this… If we believe that smoking is inherently unhealthy, should we not introduce the (minimum legal age) with immediate effect? If we believe that the burden on public health is a major one caused by smoking, should we not ban tobacco completely?”

In response, Mr Amrin said that Singapore does not rule out a complete ban when tobacco use reaches “fairly low levels”.

Having access to cigarettes is “entrenched in Singapore and globally”, he added. “Our tobacco control strategy aims to reduce the prevalence of tobacco use significantly over time,” he said.

The smoking rate among those between 18 and 69 years old has fallen from 18.3 per cent in 1992 to around 13 per cent in 2014, but this decline has bottomed out in recent years.

E-CIGARETTES, VAPORISERS

On Tuesday, the legislative changes passed will also ban the purchase, use and possession of electronic nicotine delivery systems such as e-cigarettes and vaporisers.This will take effect from early next year, the Health Ministry said.

For now, only the importation, sale and distribution of such products are illegal.

On this extended ban, Nee Soon MP Louis Ng and Non-Constituency MP Leon Perera noted that Singapore may be “missing out on a chance” to benefit from the alternative, reduced-risk products in its fight against smoking.

Mr Perera suggested allowing smokers to get these products in a “controlled way” as part of a smoking cessation programme.

While medical opinion is divided on whether these alternatives are less harmful than cigarettes, no one could argue that they are more harmful, he said. “If e-cigarettes are truly less harmful, allowing non-smokers access to e-cigarettes will enable them to reduce the harm they cause to themselves and others…It is not easy for smokers to quit. Surely, the humane thing to do is to allow smokers… an avenue to use a less harmful product?”

‘NICOTINE-FREE’ FUTURE

While some studies suggested that the fear of a “gateway effect” — where allowing alternative products may get youth hooked on nicotine — is overstated, Mr Amrin said that there are as many studies providing evidence for it.

“The correct question should be whether e-cigarettes are harmful to health, and the answer is yes… (electronic nicotine delivery systems) are marketed as healthy alternatives and the youth are targeted. We must not let our guard down, and we must protect our young. Our goal is not just a smoke-free future, but a nicotine-free one. Tobacco products that purport to be less harmful still expose the user to toxins in addictive ways that are harmful to health, he added.

Manufacturers who have robust evidence on the efficacy of such alternative products can submit them for evaluation to be used as a smoking cessation therapy, Mr Amrin said, but none have done so thus far.

Other suggestions raised by 10 MPs who spoke during the debate include greater enforcement on middlemen agents such as logistics companies and online suppliers, as well as stepping up on outreach efforts among youth.

Ang Mo Kio MP Gan Thiam Poh also suggested tapping volunteers for enforcement, an idea that Mr Amrin said the authorities would study.

“Our aim is to, ultimately, de-normalise tobacco use to protect our young from (being lured into) nicotine addiction (for life),” Mr Amrin said.

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