Legal age for smoking to be raised to 21
Study shows those who don't smoke before 21 are unlikely to pick up the habit
The minimum legal age (MLA) for smoking will be raised from 18 to 21 years old in the latest effort to stub out the tobacco scourge among youngsters.
Nearly half of smokers here became habitual smokers when they were 18 to 21 years old, said Senior Minister of State for Health Amy Khor.
A World Health Organisation report has found that people are less likely to pick up smoking if they do not start puffing before 21, she told Parliament yesterday.
"We want to protect our young from the harms of tobacco and lay the foundation for good health," she added.
The change will be phased in over a few years, with legislative changes to be proposed to Parliament within a year.
The Ministry of Health (MOH) said the minimum legal age restriction will continue to cover purchase, use and possession by minors and sale to minors below legal age, for both retail and social supply.
Dr Khor's announcement comes after a public consultation by the Health Promotion Board (HPB) to raise the MLA for tobacco sales.
At 13.3 per cent, Singapore has one of the lowest smoking rates in the world. HPB hopes to cut that to 12 per cent by 2020.
Addictions specialist Munidasa Winslow said most men start drinking and smoking when they are serving national service.
"This is because they have peers who smoke or drink, and there is disposable income to pay for it," he told The New Paper.
Raising the MLA will help to reduce smoking levels, not withstanding that teens sometimes still get hold of cigarettes, Dr Winslow added.
"Now that it is (going to be) illegal, it would make them think twice," he said.
Raising the MLA to discourage smoking has proven to be effective in Needham, a town in Massachusetts, US.
After it raised its MLA to 21 in 2005, smoking rates among under-18s dropped from 13 per cent in 2006 to 7 per cent in 2010.
At least 215 localities in the US, including New York City, have since increased their MLA to 21 years.
In other countries like Australia and the UK, smoking levels were brought down with standardised tobacco packaging.
MOH will hold further public consultations on standardised tobacco packaging as there is "significant value in moving in this direction to reduce the appeal of tobacco products, particularly to youths, and raise the visibility and effectiveness of health warnings", Dr Khor said.
Former smoker Kenneth Yeo, 28, agrees that the reduced appeal of tobacco products - like health warnings - would be helpful, but he feels that raising the age limit is just a numbers game.
The engineer, who has been smoke-free for four months, told TNP: "Back then, when the MLA was 18, I started smoking when I was 15. If I were a curious 15-year-old kid, raising the MLA to 21 doesn't change anything. I would have still tried to do it."
An easier way to curb smoking, he feels, is public education, and identifying the reasons people of different age groups pick up smoking.
Student Jamie Ng, 19, said the move to raise the MLA for tobacco sales is inconsistent, given that the minimum age for other vices like alcohol consumption remains at 18.
The smoker told TNP: "You can get liver failure from binge drinking, just like you can develop lung cancer from smoking. So why single out smoking?"
Parents like Madam Connie Tan, 45, think raising the MLA is a good start.
Madam Tan, who has a 15-year-old son, said: "At least this will make it a little more difficult for young people to buy cigarettes."