SINGAPORE: As the legal smoking age goes up from 2019, it looks like the work to stop underage smoking will only get harder.
A survey commissioned by Mediacorp programme Talking Point found that Singapore’s young smokers are starting earlier than people may think, and not only when they are on the cusp of the current legal age. (Watch the episode here.)
Out of 321 smokers aged between 18 and 21 years who started smoking in their teens, 63 per cent first lit up between the ages of 15 and 17.
But what may give people pause is that one-third of those surveyed started between 12 and 14 years of age, while 4 per cent took their first puff when they were even younger.
The Health Ministry is raising the minimum smoking age in stages, from 18 to 21 by 2021, to minimise the impact on legal smokers under 21 now. But that still leaves the younger teenagers who are getting hooked.
The ministry said last month that two-thirds of smokers below 18 get their tobacco from friends and schoolmates, whereas in the Talking Point survey, half of them got their smokes from relatives and friends.
The survey also found that 30 per cent bought cigarettes from licensed vendors, while one in five turned to other sources, including strangers in the street and illegal vendors.
ARE RETAILERS ENFORCING THE LAW?
To find out how easy it is for young smokers to buy cigarettes, Talking Point went undercover, working with 18-year-old actor Tan Kah Yu.
The baby-faced teen went to 10 retailers to buy cigarettes, and of these, six did not check his identity card, nor did they verbally ask him his age.
“I’m quite surprised because some of my friends say that I look very, very young,” he said.
Some of the shop owners were busy, and they didn’t even bother to look at me – they just got the cigarettes for me.
There are over 4,700 tobacco retail outlets as of last year, and retailers risk fines of up to S$5,000 for selling cigarettes to minors and S$10,000 for subsequent offences, as well as having their tobacco licence suspended or revoked respectively.
Having seen youngsters try to get around the age restriction, one of the retailers who checked Kah Yu’s identity card told him there were even underage teens who “grew their moustache just to buy cigarettes”.
Some teens also ask strangers to buy them cigarettes, as the survey showed. And to see if Singaporeans would do the right thing on their part, Talking Point conducted another experiment, this time working with 18-year-old Fong Yanran.
The freelance actress asked 10 people in Orchard Road to help her buy cigarettes. When one man asked why, and she said she forgot to carry her identity card, he then asked her which brand she wanted before helping her to buy a pack.
This scene played out one more time, with a woman - but the rest did not help Yanran. “They asked me my age. I said I was 18, but they looked like they didn’t believe (me). They said, ‘No lah, no lah, if you don’t have (your) IC, then I can’t buy,’” she said.
Smokers were more willing, however, to give her one of their own sticks. Half of those she approached did so without asking to see her IC – another example of how teen smokers who are determined will find ways to get their fix.
Youths whom Talking Point spoke to did not think stronger enforcement would help much. Said one: “If you’re addicted, then this kind of scare (tactics) won’t really bother you.”
THE EFFECTS ON TEENS
The health risks – locally, tobacco kills approximately 2,500 smokers and 250 non-smokers each year – are also not warning off youngsters. Respiratory specialist Ken Lee treats teens who have smoking-related diseases and sees first-hand the damage done when smokers start young.
“Some of the earlier consequences… would be inflammatory effects on the lungs, and that could cause problems like persistent coughing,” said the associate consultant in the Singapore General Hospital’s Department of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine.
Smoking may worsen skin complaints such as eczema, and over the years, there is also the risk of “the smoker’s face”.
Close to half of them tend to have premature signs of ageing.
"So they may develop wrinkles early around the eyes or corners of the lips, deep lines over the face and some discoloration," Dr Lee explained.
Nicotine has an effect on the brain too, which in turn may affect the teens’ emotions, memory, attention span and decision-making process. “Ultimately, this would impact their studies,” added Dr Lee.
SHOULD THE PUBLIC DO MORE?
Despite the underage smoking, however, Singapore has not reached the point where smoking has become socially acceptable for young people, noted social worker Nithya Levi Vasanthan from Youth Infinity, a specialist centre of the Ang Mo Kio Family Service Centre.
“They’re definitely coming to me and telling me that their family (and) their friends are either encouraging them to quit or cut down,” she said.
But at the same time, familial influence cuts both ways: According to the survey, one in four who picked up smoking by the age of 14 did so because of immediate family members who smoked.
With close to 95 per cent of smokers having had their first puff before they turned 21, one question now arises: Should the public do more when they come across teen smokers, and not just rely on tougher laws?
Ms Nithya thinks everyone can get involved. “Just talk to them (and say) ‘maybe what you’re doing, you shouldn’t be doing’,” she said. “Because … we do care about (young persons) and want to help them.”
This got a mixed reaction among youths – some agreed, others were less sure. One polytechnic student said: “In Singapore, it’s kind of weird if you approach strangers and randomly tell them ‘eh, don’t smoke’. They might think you’re trying to pick a fight.”
Watch this episode of Talking Point here. New episodes air on Mediacorp Channel 5 every Thursday, 9.30pm.