'Not intended to be a magic bullet': Health professionals weigh in on proposed changes to tobacco packaging

'Not intended to be a magic bullet': Health professionals weigh in on proposed changes to tobacco packaging

Oesophageal cancer smoking tobacco
File photo of cigarettes. (Photo: AFP/Joel Saget)

SINGAPORE: Proposed changes to tobacco product packaging announced by the Government are a good start towards reducing smoking in Singapore, but should be seen as part of a broader effort to tackle the issue, health professionals said on Wednesday (Oct 31).

This comes after the Ministry of Health (MOH) announced that it would introduce standardised packaging for tobacco products sold in Singapore, as part of ongoing efforts for a tobacco-free society.

Under the proposed measures, products will have to be sold in plain packaging with graphic health warnings covering at least 75 per cent of the packet.

Standardised packaging and enlarged graphic health warnings for tobacco products
A proposed layout of a standardised cigarette box. (Photo: Ministry of Health)

Health professionals in Singapore welcomed the proposed changes, but pointed out that these should operate in tandem with other initiatives to reduce smoking.

"Standardised packaging is definitely a good start (to) our journey to reducing smoking. But this alone cannot be the only driver," said Dr Lambert Low, consultant with the National Addictions Management Service at the Institute of Mental Health. 

"Rather, it should be part of a broader effort that also includes other initiatives such as public education to raise awareness of the need for smoking cessation."

Dr Low pointed out that in Singapore, "packaging is the only form of advertising for tobacco products", and that packaging could lead some consumers to form the impression that cigarettes from certain brands are less harmful. 

"With standardised packaging, we can dispel the notion that brands make a difference," he said. "Also, with a bigger space for health warnings, the health message becomes even more apparent to consumers."

Given that the changes - if enacted - may take effect from 2020, they will overlap with the gradual increase in the minimum legal age for tobacco use from 18 to 21 by 2021, pointed out Dr Clive Tan, treasurer at the College of Public Health and Occupational Physicians, Academy of Medicine Singapore.

READ: Legal age for smoking to be gradually raised from 18 to 21

As such, it will be hard to attribute any decrease in smoking rates to a single measure, he said, but added that there should be a reduction in the number of young adult smokers.

"It will be difficult to attribute the effect of the decrease in smoking rates to just one of these," he said. "The population group that will be most impacted by this recent slew of measures are the youth, so there should be a marked reduction in number of young adult smokers."

"WE SHOULD NOT STOP HERE"

The increase in the minimum legal age for smoking should not stop at 21, but continue "year-on-year", suggested Professor Teo Yik Ying, Dean of the Saw Swee Hock School of Public Health at the National University of Singapore.

"This way, we will have a concrete vision and plan to make Singapore smoke-free," he said.

Prof Teo said it was important to remember that the proposed packaging measures are intended to work together with existing initiatives.

"I think it’s important to highlight that this new regulation is not intended to be a magic bullet, but to complement existing tobacco control measures."

Similarly, Dr Tan said that "plain packaging by itself would be of limited effectiveness", adding that it was important to consider the initiative "as part of a package set of policies and initiatives".

He also called on more to be done in the region.

"Singapore is a highly porous country with many of our citizens and residents travelling to the region on a frequent basis, so it would be more effective if ASEAN could move forward collectively to put in place similar tobacco control measures."

READ: Big tobacco wins in smoke-friendly Southeast Asia: Watchdog

Meanwhile, tobacco company Philip Morris Singapore said it remained "hopeful" that adult smokers would be allowed to switch to "less harmful alternatives".

"We were given the opportunity to provide our comments to the Government during the public consultation process," said Ms Winnie Tan, Head of External Affairs of Philip Morris Singapore. "Ultimately, we support evidence-based policies that protect public health to prevent people from starting to smoke cigarettes and encourage cessation.

"We also remain hopeful that as scientific evidence on smoke-free products develops, policies will be adopted to accelerate the Government’s smoking control efforts by allowing adult smokers the opportunity to switch to less harmful alternatives.”

Source: CNA/nc(ra)

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