SINGAPORE: The Minimum Legal Age (MLA) for the purchase, use, possession, sale and supply of tobacco products will be increased from 18 to 21, said Parliamentary Secretary for Health Amrin Amin on Tuesday (Nov 7).
With the amendment to the Tobacco (Control of Advertisements and Sale) Bill, the minimum legal age will be progressively raised over a period of three years to minimise impact on smokers currently between the ages of 18 and 21.
“We plan to raise the MLA to 19 on 1st January 2019, 20 on 1st January 2020 and finally to 21 on 1st January 2021,” said Mr Amrin. “Quitting is a journey and it will take time for smokers to successfully quit. The phased implementation recognises this.”
Earlier he noted that 23 per cent, or about one in 4, Singaporean men still smoke - a figure higher than in Australia (14.5 per cent) and the US (15.6 per cent). Every day, six Singaporeans die prematurely from smoking-related diseases, said Mr Amrin.
He explained that the minimum legal age was being raised for two main reasons - adolescent brains being especially vulnerable to nicotine addiction, and Singaporean data showing that more needs to be done to discourage smoking among the young.
“The younger someone tries smoking, the higher the probability of him becoming a regular smoker,” said Mr Amrin. “Smokers who start earlier also find it harder to quit smoking later in life.”
He added that in Singapore, close to 95 per cent of smokers had their first puff before they turned 21.
“Forty five per cent of smokers became regular smokers between their 18th and 21st birthdays … Among youths below 18, two-thirds of smokers get their tobacco from friends and schoolmates,” Mr Amrin pointed out.
“Raising the MLA to 21 will mean that retailers cannot sell tobacco to youths between their 18th and 21st birthdays, thereby denying such youths and those in their social circles easy access to tobacco.
“We know that social and peer pressure strongly influence youths to start smoking. By raising the MLA, we are further denormalising smoking, particularly for those below 21,” he said.
“This will further reduce opportunities for youths to be tempted to take up smoking before they reach the age of 21.”
MPs QUESTION PROHIBITION OF OTHER TOBACCO PRODUCTS LIKE E-CIGARETTES
Speaking in favour of the Bill, MP for Nee Soon GRC Louis Ng said that the raise in the legal age for smoking is a "positive step forward". Sharing his personal experience, he said that he picked up smoking during his National Service days, and smoked most between the ages of 18 and 21.
He has not smoked in more than four years now, he said, but it did not come easy, he said, saying it is more difficult than taking care of twin children at 3am.
"Quitting smoking is probably one of the most difficult things I’ve accomplished in my life. The withdrawal symptoms are severe, and the urge, the craving to have a puff is extreme," he said.
However, noting that the Bill will prohibit the possession, purchase and use of tobacco products such as e-cigarettes, he asked whether any detailed research or study has been done on the potential of e-cigarettes and other tobacco products as a means to help smokers to quit smoking as a "step-down" from traditional smoking.
He cited studies that show that using such "reduced risk" tobacco products did not translate into regular use, addressing possible fears that such products could act as a gateway to traditional smoking.
Non-Constituency MP Leon Perera noted that the “good outweighs the bad” in the Bill. But he asked if it was possible for the Health Ministry to take a “more nuanced position” with e-cigarettes, by allowing confirmed smokers access to them in a controlled way.
He suggested that a controlled quantity of e-cigarettes could be made available to smokers who register with the Government for a smoking cessation programme, and sign a declaration that they are smokers trying to quit.
“If some of the claims made about e-cigarettes are even remotely true, for example, the headline claim is that they are 95 per cent safer, this could end up extending the lives of smokers and reducing their suffering,” he said. “This could also reduce state spending on treating the medical conditions associated with smoking normal cigarettes.”
He stressed, however, that he is not suggesting that e-cigarettes be legalised for the general public. “It would give access to e-cigarettes only to those already smoking conventional cigarettes,” he said.