The minimum legal age for smoking in Singapore will be raised to 21 by the year 2021—reflecting part of the amendments made to the Tobacco (Control of Advertisement and Sale) Act (TCASA), which was approved by Parliament on 7 November.

The progressive measure will be a yearly age increment within three years starting in January 2019. The current legal age is 18.

"We are raising the minimum legal age from 18 to 21 and the reason is because we want to keep young people away from smoking.” emphasised Parliamentary Secretary for Home Affairs and Health, Amrin Amin.
The Singapore Ministry of Health (MOH) found that almost 95% of smokers had their first puff before they turned 21, while 45% became regular smokers between ages 18 and 21.

The act received strong public support as there have been several consultations with the community regarding the matter. Retailers have voiced concerns about the age of cigarette sellers and with this amendment, shop assistants under the age of 21 will be banned from selling cigarettes as well.

Why the wait?”, question MPs

Although the gradual approach received strong public support, the MPs however had a different opinion.

Dr. Chia Shi-Lu and Ms Joan Pereira, the MPs for Tanjong Pagar GRC, felt that the step is unnecessary and the age increase should be implemented immediately.

Orthopaedic surgeon, Dr Chia said, “If someone who has just turned 18 has also just started smoking, this gradual implementation will continue to allow him to buy and use cigarettes until he is well and truly hooked. If we stop him or her at this early phase, it may be easier for them to quit.”

Furthermore, Ms Pereira suggested that young millennials will feel the exclusivity of being the last few legal aged smokers and seize the chance to have their first puff earlier.

The difficulty of quitting: Will a total ban be ethical?

Changes in the act will also affect the e-cigarette market. The purchase, use and possession of electronic nicotine delivery systems such as e-cigarettes and vaporisers will be banned, starting early next year.

Mr Louis Ng, MP for Nee Soon GRC wondered if Singapore might be “missing out on a chance to benefit” from the policy that is endorsed by Britain, New Zealand and the United States – some of the nations which have done extensive studies that allow the controlled use of these products as an alternative to help smokers give up cigarettes.

The purchase, use and possession of electronic nicotine delivery systems, such as e-cigarettes and vaporisers, will be banned in Singapore, starting early next year.
The purchase, use and possession of electronic nicotine delivery systems, such as e-cigarettes and vaporisers, will be banned in Singapore, starting early next year.

"It is not easy for smokers to quit,'' he said. "Surely, the humane thing to do is to allow smokers – both those seeking to quit and reduce consumption – an avenue to use a less harmful product?"
However, the benefits of e-cigarettes are still debatable as studies suggest that they may get the younger generation hooked on nicotine.

“Our goal is not just a smoke-free future, but a nicotine-free one. Tobacco products that purport to be less harmful still expose the user to toxins in addictive ways that are harmful to health” said Mr Amrin.

Towards a total ban for smoking

“I am confused as to why we should decide on a phased approach to this. If we believe that smoking is inherently unhealthy, should we not introduce the (minimum legal age) with immediate effect?”

“If we believe that the burden on public health is a major one caused by smoking, should we not ban tobacco completely?” questioned Mr Alex Yam, MP for Marsiling-Yew Tee GRC.

Responding to the question, Mr Amrin reasoned that an “immediate change to age 21 would affect about 12,000 young people aged between 19 and 21.” A realistic timeframe is needed to taper off smoking as it is not easy to quit.

However, he assured that a total ban in tobacco is not completely ruled out and it could happen in the near future when tobacco use reaches “fairly low levels”. MIMS

Read more:
The struggle against smoking and the growing threat of e-cigarettes in Hong Kong
“No” to another puff: Cosmetic surgery can potentially help smokers quit, study shows
How the tobacco industry tries to undermine tobacco control polices
Infographic: World No Tobacco Day