SINGAPORE: As the minimum legal age for smoking goes up from 20 to 21 on Jan 1, retailers are giving updates to their employees and preparing to put up signs informing customers about the change.
In November 2017, Parliament passed a law that would raise the minimum smoking age from 18 to 21 over three years.
The minimum age to buy, use, possess, sell or supply tobacco products went from 18 to 19 years old in 2019, and from 19 to 20 in 2020 as part of the Government’s plans to reduce smoking.
“It aims to prevent youths from picking up smoking by limiting access to tobacco products, and to further de-normalise smoking particularly for those below 21 of age,” the Ministry of Health said in a press release issued on Wednesday (Dec 30).
The tobacco industry, including retailers, importers and wholesalers, have been reminded of the changes, it said, and circulars stating that sale of tobacco to people aged 21 and below is banned have been distributed to retailers to display.
Both retail chains and independent vendors said they are ready for the revised minimum age to kick in.
HAO Mart’s outlet managers will inform employees about the upcoming minimum age change, a spokesperson said. These briefings are currently ongoing and take place either in-person or through phone calls.
Notices explaining the new guidelines will also be placed on the stores’ tobacco cabinets, the representative said, adding that HAO Mart has potential employees watch the Health Sciences Authority’s video on selling tobacco before they join the company. There are 49 HAO Marts across Singapore.
Similar measures have be put in place at Dairy Farm Group's line of retailers including Giant, 7-Eleven and Cold Storage, with signs on the new ruling to be displayed from the new year at "highly visible parts" of the store such as at the check-out counters, main entrance and on the tobacco cabinets, a spokesperson said. There are 48 Cold Storage, 53 Giant and 417 7-Eleven stores in Singapore.
Employees have also been told to ask for photo identification from customers to verify their age, the spokesperson added.
A FairPrice spokesperson said that its frontline workers are trained to refuse sale of tobacco to customers below 21 years old.
“Where in doubt, they are to politely request for proper identification to confirm the customer’s age. No sale will be made if the customer is unable to provide a valid photo ID,” the FairPrice spokesperson added. There are currently 148 FairPrice outlets and 144 Cheers convenience stores that sell tobacco products.
Chairman of Foochow Coffee Restaurant & Bar Merchants Association Hong Poh Hin said his group will send out letters next week to its 400-odd members to remind them to put up the notices somewhere visible.
The letter will also tell coffee shop owners to make sure their workers comply with the rule and to be “very careful” when checking identity cards as 20-year-old customers that have been able to buy cigarettes for some time this year will not be able to from Friday until they turn 21, said Mr Hong, who runs a coffee shop in Serangoon.
One provision shop owner in Whampoa said he and his wife have been on their guard about selling cigarettes to customers as they are afraid of getting into trouble with the authorities.
They will always ask to check the identity card of anyone who looks young, said Mr Ong Beo in Mandarin, who runs the Siong Wan Co store. And they will refuse to sell if the person says they forgot their card.
The age increase will act as hurdle for young people to start smoking, as most people in Singapore who start the habit do so by the time they are 21 years old, said public health expert Yvette van der Eijk from the NUS Saw Swee Hock School of Public Health.
Dr van der Eijk said raising the minimum age is not a “magic bullet” to curb tobacco consumption, although it will help to bring down smoking rates alongside other policies introduced in recent years. These include prohibiting tobacco displays in stores and requiring tobacco products to be sold in plain packaging.
Retailers who sell any tobacco product to a person below 21 could be fined up to S$5,000 on their first offence, and S$10,000 for subsequent offences, the ministry warned.
Their tobacco retail licences will also be suspended for the first offence and revoked for subsequent offences.
If any outlet is found selling tobacco products to underage persons in school uniform or those below 12, its tobacco retail licence will be revoked, even if it is the first time they did so.
Individuals caught giving or furnishing tobacco to those below 21 may be fined up to S$500 on their first offence and S$1,000 for subsequent offences, while those caught buying or acquiring tobacco for a person below 21 can be fined up to S$2,500 for the first offence and S$5,000 for subsequent offences.
Underage smokers caught using, buying or keeping tobacco products face a fine of up to S$300.