Casting a smokescreen on cigarette sales

Mar 14, 2016 07.07PM |

by Wan Ting Koh

HEARD of a “tobacco-free generation“?

This was one of the suggestions raised in Parliament today (March 14), before the Tobacco (Control of Advertisements and Sale) Bill was passed.

MP for Jurong GRC Dr Tan Wu Meng and MP for Marine Parade GRC Assoc Prof Fatimah Lateef were the chief supporters for a “tobacco-free generation”, where people born after a certain year would be banned from buying cigarettes altogether. Dr Tan said that this was to ensure youths would never start smoking in the first place. He added that he believed such a “long term plan” would not “disadvantage current smokers”. Together with MP for Tanjong Pagar GRC Dr Chia Shi-Lu, he also called for the minimum legal age to be raised on the premise that studies have shown that those who do not smoke by the age of 21 are less likely to pick up smoking later in their lives. The current legal age for smoking is 18.

In response, Ms Amy Khor, Senior Minister of State for Health, said one of the main hurdles of imposing a “tobacco-free generation” was the practical difficulty of both monitoring and imposing the penalties. Plus, the flat ban may not yield intended results, especially if youths resort to having their elders purchase cigarettes for them. The ban would be “resource intensive” because the G will then have to penalise the person providing the cigarettes. Anyway, as young people grow up, it won’t be easy distinguishing them from legal consumers, as their physical differences won’t be as obvious, she said. Hence, the ministry would not pursue the idea “for now”.

As to the idea of raising the minimum legal age, Dr Khor said that the ministry was still in the midst of studying the process and its possible effects. A public consultation round concerning this issue will be due by the end of this month.

According to the new rules, tobacco retailers can no longer display tobacco-related products such as cigarettes in their shops. The rationale according to Dr Khor: to “de-normalise” the use of tobacco and reduce exposure among non-smokers by keeping them from the advertising effects of the displays.

Speaking in Parliament, MP for Nee Soon GRC Louis Ng, a former smoker himself, recounted the difficulties he faced while attempting to go “cold turkey” – which is to wean himself off cigarettes completely – after 17 years of smoking. Mr Ng, who started smoking when he was 18 years old, said it was especially hard having to avoid retailers such as 7-Eleven as the cigarette displays were tempting. “I was a grumpy Smurf,” Mr Ng said, adding that he even tried segregating himself in Disneyland, a tobacco-free zone, for a week.

So, gone will be the days when you see racks of the various cigarette packets lined at the drinks stalls in hawker centres or at your convenience store counters. Instead, retailers will have to provide a list of the brands and their prices in text form. Under the new rules, general tobacco retailers will be required to keep tobacco products out of the direct line of sight of customers.

Even tobacco specialist retailers – such as shops that sell beedies and cigars are not exempted from the rules. However these retailers are allowed to keep their advertising within store premises and these cannot be visible from the outside the store. There are currently 17 such specialists in Singapore.

A grace period of 12 months will be given in order for tobacco retailers to implement the changes. The new laws will take effect in 2017.

Featured image by Flickr user Eric Lewis. CC BY 2.0

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