*Names have been changed to protect identities of those mentioned.

When Mikhail* (not pictured) took his first puff in secondary school, he was offered a cigarette by his friend who was of the same age as him. He tried it out of curiosity but did not start his first full pack of cigarettes until he was 19.

He started curbing the habit of smoking on his own accord, when he had a child two years ago from his marriage to his wife.

Now 26, Mikhail believes that while the government’s plan to raise the legal age of smoking from 18 to 21 – amid other amendments to the Tobacco Act – is fair if it helps “promote a better lifestyle for youngsters”, he thinks there can be another way out.

“As a consumer, the government should give us less harmful alternatives instead of banning vices outright,” he said. “A more sustainable measure should be put into place.”

He is adamant that top-down decisions like raising the legal smoking age will only open the floodgates for younger people to go to the black market to get their hands on illegal cigarettes or vapes.

“If the demand is high, the black market will bring up the price but it can be easy to get illegal items if you have the right contacts,” he said.

Can retailers hire people under 21 to handle tobacco at the cashier?

Smoking In Singapore - Popspoken

Photo: Jason Bagley/Flickr

This concern is also affecting Preston* who owns a minimart in the north of Singapore as tobacco and liquor form the top two income earners for his shop, and he is worried the proposed legal smoking age of 21 will affect his business.

“We try and capitalise on traffic from these two categories to sell other groceries,” he said. “With this kind of ruling in place, people will find it more troublesome to buy tobacco and we are worried they will turn to alternative sources.”

The new age limit may also affect who he can hire; during the school holidays, he hires students aged 18 and above to help him with replenishing stocks. As the minimart operations are lean, the added manpower will have to do cashiering as well.

Now with the proposed law, he is worried he cannot hire these students because the legal smoking age is also the legal age to handle tobacco. Preston will have to look for undergraduates which will be tough because they are not keen in helping out in a minimart when they have other pressing career interests, he said.

Add this to the amount of challenges the retail industry has to contend with: growing e-commerce, disruptive technology, the Malaysian exchange rate and now, a new law from August 1 banning the display of tobacco products.

Preston is worried these new restrictions will affect how fast a customer can check out purchased items. Checking a customer’s age by birthday as the legal smoking age increases every year for three years will only make checkout more cumbersome, he added.

For a small enterprise, longer checkout times means customers may walk away. Every customer who does so is one less customer for the minimart, and possibly one more customer for the black market.

“All these rules are slowing down our checkout processes,” he said. “These kind of regulatory issues counter the speed-up that we have to do in order to survive.”

Yearly phases to increase smoking age: will it cause problems?

The government’s plan to increase the legal smoking age in yearly phases by choosing to refer to someone’s date of birth – a granular piece of information that Preston said is cumbersome to check and deduce at the storefront – may also pose problems for those caught in between the overlaps:

Smoking In Singapore - Popspoken

“We should not factor in changes in birthdays when it comes to the phased increase – they should just take a look at the year and factor in everyone,” said Mikhail when Popspoken explained the above graphic to him.

Under the proposed new law, a new definition of what it means to be “under-aged person” will be inserted in Section 2 of the Tobacco (Control of Advertisements and Sale) Act, to provide for this phased increase in minimum legal age.

However, the definitions (on page 3 of this link) do not factor in the above-mentioned scenario. The new definition also specifies that the date of legal age increase will be decided by the Minister of Health.

How is the tobacco industry encouraging responsible smoking?

Smoking In Singapore - Popspoken

“If you start smoking at a legal age and and then suddenly you are illegal, you have to go into it with eyes wide open,” said a representative from one of the major tobacco suppliers in Singapore to Popspoken.

“They are the ones going to be in and out the legal zone,” the rep added, arguing that education to end-consumers should be regular during the 12-month grace period lawmakers will give before implementing the amendments to the Tobacco Act.

The rep said his company works closely with retailers, especially mom-and-pop outlets like Preston’s, by using materials such as educational brochures to ensure such retailers do not sell tobacco to underaged people.

However, there is a limitation as the rep argues it is easier to implement consumer education from a public education ambit instead by targeting tertiary institutions such as universities, polytechnics and Institutes of Technical Education instead of storefront messaging.

A new smoking ban on Orchard Road may also impact the locale; the shopping street was cited by the Singapore Tourism Board (STB) as the most visited free-access attraction in Singapore among visitors from 2005 to 2014.

What about the China tourists, then?

“If the government wants to make Orchard Road a smoking-free zone, foreign tourists from countries with high smoking rates can just go away and shop somewhere else, and then what?” said the representative.

Smoking In Singapore - Popspoken

Photo: Jennifer 8 Lee/Flickr

Despite all the top-down directives and layering upon layering of new regulations, the helpfulness of such smoking-restriction regulations is susceptible, the rep added.

“There is no attempt to review the effectiveness of current policies before introducing new ones,” said the rep, arguing that the display ban may create a Streisand effect and not reduce smoking rates due to the presence of illegal tobacco.

For now, Mikhail is worried that the government’s heavy-handedness in top-down directives towards smoking may soon extend to older people who have been smoking for a long time.

“People should have the option to choose what they want to do for themselves,” he said.

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How you can make your voice heard on the proposed changes to the Tobacco Act:

View the draft Amendment bill here. Members of the public have until Jul 10 (Monday), 5pm to offer their feedback to the new Tobacco Act amendments, and can do so by filling up this form on the Ministry of Health’s website. They can also do so via:

– Email: [email protected]
– Fax: 6224 1677
– Post: Ministry of Health
TCASA Public Consultation
College of Medicine Building
16 College Road
Singapore 169854

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Featured photo by Bared Ibrahim on Unsplash

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