Sir, as I’ve shared several times in this House, I was a former smoker and I smoked for 17 years. I celebrated my quitting anniversary just last month, on 12 October. I have not smoked for over four years now.
Raising the minimum smoking age to 21
I started smoking when I was about 18 years old and it was during my National Service days between 18 and 21 years old that I smoked the most.
When we debated the previous Tobacco (Control of Advertisements and Sale) (Amendment) Bill, I shared with this House that “research by WHO shows that people who don’t pick up smoking before the age of 21 are unlikely to ever start smoking.” And I asked why the proposal to raise the minimum smoking age to 21 years old was not included in that Bill.
I am heartened to see that it is included in this Bill and that we will be increasing the minimum legal age of smoking from 18 to 21 years old. This is a positive and huge step forward.
However, I would like to seek clarifications about other aspects of this Bill.
Rationale for banning possession and use of alternative tobacco products such as e-cigarettes
Firstly, we are proposing to extend the prohibition on importation, distribution and sale of other tobacco products (such as e-cigarettes) to include possession, purchase and use of such tobacco products.
Can the Minister clarify whether other than the preliminary research by HSA mentioned by SMS Amy Khor in March 2017, any detailed research or study has been done on the potential of such e-cigarettes or other reduced-risk products as means to assist smokers to quit smoking as an alternative step-down from traditional cigarettes? If so, whether details of such research and data can be shared in this house?
I can attest to the fact that quitting smoking is not easy. I can tell you that looking after twins at 3am in the morning is easier.
Quitting smoking is probably one of the most difficult things I have accomplished in my life so far. The withdrawal symptoms are severe and the urge, the craving to have a puff, just one puff is extreme. Having gone through it, I know that people who want to quit need more help.
Through a Facebook comment, Mr. Daniel Yap shared with me that research has shown that allowing alternative reduced-risk tobacco products has proven to be an effective means for smokers to quit smoking.
I understand that the United Kingdom, New Zealand and most states in the United States have conducted extensive studies and endorsed policy approaches, which allow for alternative reduced-risk tobacco products as ways for smokers to gradually quit the habit of smoking.
I do understand the Ministry’s position and fear regarding one, the gateway effect of allowing such alternative reduced-risk tobacco products and two, that such products contain similar nicotine levels as traditional cigarettes as Minister stated in March 2017.
However, on the gateway effect fear, there are numerous studies done and publicly available results, which show that this fear may be overstated.
As Mr. Yap pointed out, Minister’s evidence in the March 2017 reply supporting the rise in the use of e-cigarettes amongst US youths ignores the other data trend across the same period which shows a significant drop in the use of cigarettes.
Most recently, a study by Professor Linda Bauld at the University of Stirling published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, showed that this fear of gateway effect is overstated.
In fact, the study involving data gathered from 2015 to 2017 of youths in UK, show that e-cigarette experimentation by teenagers is simply not translating into regular use.
I do question the argument of youths picking up the habit of smoking via e-cigarettes. If we increase the minimum legal age and if HSA follows up with strategic enforcement efforts, our youths under the age of 21 years old will still be protected from access to such e-cigarettes.
Hence, can Minister clarify the scientific basis of this fear of gateway effect in our policy? And whether Singapore may be missing out on a chance to benefit from a policy, which allows controlled use of alternative reduced-risk tobacco products to continue our fight against smoking?
Further, I understand that Phillip Morris has a research lab facility in Singapore researching and developing such e-cigarettes. Hence access to primary data and resources for a study partner does not appear to be a challenge, can Minister clarify whether there are plans to conduct in depth studies on potential ways to use such e-cigarettes as means to help smokers?
Secondly, on the similar nicotine levels, Mr. Yap raised this point and I quote “Smokers are addicted to nicotine but killed by tar and other chemicals. Shouldn’t the answer be about tar and carbon monoxide instead? Or at least one of the many other chemicals in cigarettes that could harm your body? And if lower levels of other chemicals are detected in heat-not-burn products, then the same level of nicotine would be a good thing because it would be easier for addicts to switch products because they get the same high while causing less harm to themselves and others. We practice “reduced harm” policies for other vices. If heat-not-burn products and e-cigarettes reduce harm, we should allow them, and the health authorities should commit to this and then go research it”. Can Minister provide clarifications on the above points raised?
Sir, raising the minimum legal age is a very positive step forward and it will prevent people from starting smoking. I do hope that we will also devote more resources into helping people to quit smoking and look into every available means to help them in the quitting process.