On Wednesday, October 31, the Ministry of Health (MOH) announced that all tobacco products will soon be required to assign 75 percent of box or packaging space to graphic health warnings and to have standardised, plain packaging. Health professionals agree that this is a wise move, but it “cannot be the only driver” in the larger effort for Singapore to move towards becoming a tobacco-free society.
- The MOH has declared that by 2020, all tobacco products sold in Singapore will comply with the new packaging standards – no colours, brand images, logos or any promotional information will be permitted, and it was also mandated that very graphic health warnings (composed of photos and words) will have to cover at least 75 percent of the packaging. Currently, tobacco packaging has graphic health warnings on 50 percent of the packages.
Health professionals in Singapore approve of the MOH’s recommendations to change the packaging of tobacco products, but they reiterated that these should not stand alone but work together with other initiatives to reduce smoking.
“Standardised packaging is definitely a good start [to] our journey to reducing smoking. But this alone cannot be the only driver,” said Dr. Lambert Low, consultant with the National Addictions Management Service at the Institute of Mental Health.
“Rather, it should be part of a broader effort that also includes other initiatives such as public education to raise awareness of the need for smoking cessation.”
Dr. Low said that as “packaging is the only form of advertising for tobacco products”, some people might believe that certain brands of cigarettes or tobacco might be less harmful.
“With standardised packaging, we can dispel the notion that brands make a difference,” he said. “Also, with a bigger space for health warnings, the health message becomes even more apparent to consumers.”
This is the most recent measure that the MOH is taking to assist in the efforts to cut down the smoking prevalence rate in Singapore, which has fluctuated between 12 to 14 percent over the last ten years.
Preventing the display of tobacco products in shops, raising taxes on tobacco, adding to non-smoking areas, and lifting the legal age to 21 over the next three years are some of the other policies the MOH has come up with to steer Singapore into eventually achieving the status of a smoke-free society.
The driving force behind all these changes is health.
“Tobacco use is a major cause of ill-health and death in Singapore. Daily smoking prevalence amongst Singaporeans has been fluctuating since 2004, with no clear pattern of sustained decline,” said the MOH in a press release.
Every year, more than 2,000 Singaporeans die because of the effects of smoking. In terms of cost, Singapore spends at least $600 million per year for healthcare costs for smoking-related diseases and lost productivity.
“More needs to be done to achieve sustained declines in the overall smoking rates and, in particular, male smoking rate,” said the MOH.
More than one in five men in Singapore smoke daily, higher than the rates in 13 Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development countries.
Seven other countries have implemented similar laws on smoking, including France, Britain and Australia, the first country to do so in 2012.
Professor Teo Yik Ying, Dean of the Saw Swee Hock School of Public Health at the National University of Singapore, said that it was pertinent to remember that the proposed packaging is intended to work hand-in-hand with other anti-smoking policies.
“This way, we will have a concrete vision and plan to make Singapore smoke-free,” he said.
“I think it’s important to highlight that this new regulation is not intended to be a magic bullet, but to complement existing tobacco control measures.”
Dr. Clive Tan, treasurer at the College of Public Health and Occupational Physicians, Academy of Medicine Singapore, also weighed in on the discussion, calling on the ASEAN region to band together against smoking.
“Singapore is a highly porous country with many of our citizens and residents travelling to the region on a frequent basis, so it would be more effective if ASEAN could move forward collectively to put in place similar tobacco control measures,” he remarked.
The new measure regarding packaging should be enforced in 2020, if the proposed amendments from the MOH (which they will present early next year) are made into law.
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