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Will raising the minimum age for smoking work in Singapore?

Raising minimum age for smoking has benefits but may be inconsistent with law

After a year of consultation, the state of Tasmania in Australia walked away from a proposal to raise the minimum legal age (MLA) for smoking from 18 to 21.

With the second highest smoking rate in the country - 20 per cent of Tasmanians smoke - the plan was introduced so young people would not pick up an unhealthy habit that would likely stay with them for life.

But it sparked much debate between the proponents arguing that it is for the sake of health and the opponents citing issues of rights, freedom of choice and legal inconsistencies. In the end, the latter prevailed.

Tasmania's Health Minister Michael Ferguson explained last July: "As I said at the time we released the proposal for consultation, it is a challenging proposal involving a balance of preserving individual adult rights and freedom of choice with the desire to reduce youth smoking."

Now, these same issues lie at the fore of a similar debate here - Singapore is also considering a move to raise the MLA for the purchase, possession and use of tobacco from 18 to 21.

The question is, will it work?

POTENTIAL BENEFITS

The main rationale behind the proposal comes from studies, including a World Health Organization report, showing that people are less likely to pick up smoking if they do not start puffing before the age of 21.

Conversely, those who do start smoking early are more likely to keep doing so.

Stopping under-21s from smoking thus makes sense, if a nation is seeking to reduce its smoking rates.

[The main rationale behind the proposal comes from studies showing that people are less likely to pick up smoking if they do not start puffing
before the age of 21.

Singapore has one of the lowest in the world at 13.3 per cent, but it is aiming to cut it down to 12 per cent by 2020.

The potential effectiveness of raising the MLA as a powerful complement to other efforts to discourage smoking has to be acknowledged.

When Needham, a town in Massachusetts, 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.

Here, doctors and health experts backing the proposal also noted that older people are less likely to give in to peer pressure to pick up a cigarette and more able to understand the harmful effects of smoking.

Even smokers themselves admitted they might not have picked up the habit had they been prevented from puffing when they were younger.

LEGAL INCONSISTENCY

There is one legal issue, however, that needs to be considered - the significance of the age at which smoking is considered illegal.

For many here, turning 18 marks the transition into adulthood - a widely-held perception strengthened by many of Singapore's laws.

At 18, a person can get a driving licence, watch an adult-themed film, and be appointed as a director of a company. The same 18-year-old male in national service will be trained to use a rifle, and a person can marry with parental consent.

It would seem that the law tacitly deems an 18-year-old mature enough to fulfil the responsibilities of all these roles and actions.

More importantly, the law here allows a person to consume alcohol when he turns 18.

Why is there a move to raise the minimum age of one vice but not of another?

Isn't this inconsistent?

HEALTH VS LAW & ORDER

The singling out of smoking hinges on health reasons.

But by penalising smoking and not alcohol consumption, the authorities are offering greater priority to the health concerns of its citizenry over the law and order anxieties of society.

The societal costs of excessive drinking are significant, with risks of addiction and unhealthy consequences.

Drink driving, for instance, has been a persistent bugbear here despite stepped-up enforcement.

While arrests and accidents have gone down in recent years, the number of fatalities has remained steady.

From January to September last year, the number of arrests stood at 1,540, a 13 per cent drop compared with the same period in 2015. But there were 103 drink-driving accidents, which led to three fatalities and 153 injuries.

The Government is looking to stiffen penalties for drink drivers who end up killing or hurting people, with experts lobbying for mandatory jail sentences for even first-time offenders.

Similarly, binge drinking can lead to domestic violence and rioting. The 2013 Little India riot is only the most dramatic example of alcohol-fuelled violence.

As a former police officer with more than a decade of service as both a regular and a reservist, I have had to respond to many fights and altercations caused by alcohol.

It is highly unlikely for someone who has smoked 10 packs of cigarettes to start a fight. But those who have drunk 10 mugs of beers are usually intoxicated and have a propensity to create a public nuisance, at the very least. Some become violent.

When comparing the two vices, one has to ask which is a bigger social evil, and if public health should outweigh law and order.

In fact, alcohol is also a health concern, since heavy drinking can lead to alcohol addiction and cause serious damage to the body.

EDUCATION NOT ENFORCEMENT

The potential positive impact of raising the MLA for smoking cannot be denied.

But the move also has to consider other ramifications, chief of which is the message it may send vis-a-vis current laws governing the legal and mental capacity of 18-year-olds.

Perhaps a more calibrated approach - such as pouring more resources into anti-smoking awareness and campaigns featuring celebrities and cultural icons showing that smoking is not cool - can be considered.

As MP Tin Pei Ling, who was once the deputy chairman for the Government Parliamentary Committee for Health, has noted, the best way to discourage smoking is helping individuals make their own decision not to pick it up.

She said in a 2015 media interview: "What is critical and most challenging is to educate and raise awareness of the ills of smoking… and persuade them to decide for themselves that they will not take up smoking… otherwise, whether it's raising or lowering the age limit - (that) is just a numbers game."

The writer is a former lawyer and police officer turned angel investor and start-up mentor.

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