The proposed laws to raise the legal smoking age will be tabled in Parliament within a year, and the change will be phased in over a few years. Youths above 18 who are already smokers will not be affected by the change. The Ministry of Health (MOH) would take further steps to reduce, if not eliminate, opportunities for young people to take up smoking before 21, said Dr Khor.
The announcement at the MOH’s Committee of Supply debate quickly drew strong opinions from the public. Some applauded the move, while others questioned why the authorities did not ban smoking altogether, given its role in heart and other diseases.
The prevalence of smoking in Singapore has improved over the years — from 18.3 per cent in 1992 to 13.3 per cent in 2013 — but stagnated in recent years. Smoking rates among young men are still high, while the smoking rates of young women are creeping up.
Research has also shown adolescent brains to be more sensitive to the rewarding effects of nicotine. Studies also show that the younger the youths are when they first try smoking, the greater the levels of nicotine addiction, intensity of smoking and likelihood of continuing to smoke into adulthood, said the MOH.
Dr Khor said Singapore is taking steps towards standardising tobacco packaging, as Australia, France and the United Kingdom have done. “We have closely studied the experience of these countries, and see significant value in moving in this direction, so as to reduce the appeal of tobacco products, particularly to youths, and raise the visibility and effectiveness of health warnings,” she said.
The Government will conduct further public consultation on standardised packaging this year to seek additional and more-detailed views on possible standardised packaging measures.
“We will carefully review relevant considerations including public health, intellectual property and international law perspectives, and ensure that any measures taken are consistent with our domestic law and international obligations,” she said.
Responding to the proposed change in the legal smoking age on Thursday, the Tobacco Association of Singapore said it was concerned about how this would be implemented by licensed tobacco retailers in a practical manner, whether the regulation would be enforced on non-Singaporean visitors, and whether retailers facing manpower crunch issues would not be able to hire workers aged 18 to 20 years as a result.
The authorities will continue to monitor international best practices in tobacco control and will adopt appropriate measures to control tobacco use, said Dr Khor.