Health is wealth. Something our nation advocates. A noble sentiment, but when such sentiments impinge on freedom of choice, how should one decide?
We previously discussed the recent proposal by HPB (Health Promotion Board), that would make the the age-limit of smoking inconsistent with other vices. This is one of the 4 changes the HPB is suggesting. The other 3 proposals include standardizing plain packaging, enhancing graphic warnings and the restriction of sale of flavoured tobacco products.
The proposed measure drawing most attention is the ban on sale of flavoured tobacco products, which includes menthol cigarettes. Aside from soon becoming the first Asian country to do away with menthol cigarettes, the bigger question is whether consumer choice would be consequently impinged. And more crucially, whether this would drive the sale of menthol cigarettes to the black market.
Consumer choice is a tricky situation. If the same line of reasoning to ban flavoured cigarettes is followed, would it mean that all products that have an eventual “harmful” repercussion should be stamped out? During travels, a commonly heard statement is: “Ah you’re from Singapore… The country that bans chewing gum.” To which a quick-witted response would be, well, we have the good fortune of walking on cleaning streets without having to pick gum from the soles of our shoes.
Unpacking the term “harmful” is a complicated task. Of course the direct effects of banning gum and a resulting clean street free of gum wads seem immediate and apparent. But are clean streets solely attributed to the lack of chewing gum? Or could it be due to the inherent “kiasee” characteristic of Singaporeans to not be irresponsible with their waste or bodily fluids? Personally, we think the latter. We can’t divorce China from the spit on the streets, or the smell of pee in some American states. Clearly, their street waste issue does not centre around the presence of chewing gum.
Yes, we all have KPIs to meet and laws have to be constantly reviewed to stay relevant. HPB, like all government agencies, has a duty to its people to enact effective policy, measured perhaps on an annual basis on policies that would improve our health situation. This is all well and good, but we wonder if there are other trickle down effects that are unaccounted for.
If the ban of menthol / flavoured cigarettes (which presumably improves our lung cancer situation), is passed; would the next ailment HPB looks to tackle be obesity, since 1 in 9 Singaporeans are obese? Sweetened drinks are known to be a major factor contributing to obesity and more recently, heart diseases. By the same token, would it mean that all soft drinks have to be stamped out? We are not personally coke fanatics, but what about those who are huge coke fans. How far should governments go to protect their people and should a consequence of that be to take away what some people seek solace in?
To the future youth that has yet to pick up smoking, perhaps HPB’s studies on how flavoured cigarettes entice the youth to smoke can be favourably looked upon. Contraband cigarettes are definitely a cause of worry for our Customs officials, who saw 3 million hit our shores in 2014. Possibly more, if a ban on menthol cigarettes were passed.
There are many ways to a healthy life, we are just unsure if limiting consumer choice is the best way to do so. A single grain can tip a scale. Let your views be heard – HPB’s public consultation can be accessed here and runs till 29 March 2016.