Why Can’t Singapore Just Ban Cigarettes?

Cigarettes are an enigma. They serve absolutely no useful function. They are highly addictive and all they do is harm and kill. Yet, they are freely available as a retail item. While the distribution of other drugs which are as addictive as cigarettes but arguably less harmful like heroin and cocaine carry with it the death penalty. This begs many people to ask the question why can we not ban cigarettes?

Making Money from Tobacco Taxes?

The commonest answer I get from casually asking my patients this question is that our government is addicted to the revenue from tobacco taxes. It is easy to be lured into this line of thinking. Who does not love a good conspiracy theory that our government secretly wants us to get hopelessly addicted to a harmful product so that they can collect large sums of money? And a large sum it truly is. In 2016, Singapore collected more than 1 billion dollars from tobacco taxes1. With our stagnating smoking rates, increasing resident population and increasing tobacco tax rates, this number is only set to rise.
However, on closer examination, this argument easily falls apart. The cost of cigarette smoking far outstrips the revenue from tobacco taxes. These include direct costs of funding smoking cessation programs, cost of enforcement to prevent the smuggling of illicit cigarettes and of course costs of subsidizing the diagnosis and treatment of numerous diseases brought on by smoking. Not to mention the indirect costs to our economy caused by the loss of productivity due to people taking smoking breaks.
In fact, a company in Japan, marketing firm Piala Inc, gives 6 extra vacation days to their non-smoking employees to reward them for their increased productivity due to not having to take smoking breaks2. Throw in the cost of having to fight the hundreds of fires caused by cigarette butts each year3and one can easily see cigarette smoking costs Singapore many times the amount collected from tobacco taxes. So logically the loss of tobacco tax revenue cannot be a good incentive not to ban cigarettes.

High Political Price?

Another common theory I hear tracks along approximately the same lines. In that there will be a high political price to pay if cigarettes were banned. The logic goes that banning cigarettes will alienate smokers, lead to loss of jobs, harm small business owners who rely heavily on the revenue from selling cigarettes and even dissuade foreign investment into Singapore. And that our government is unwilling to suffer the political backlash. Again, none of these reasons stand up to scrutiny.
First, there are several studies to show that many smokers themselves support a ban on smoking4. So banning smoking will likely not alienate the majority of smokers.
Secondly, Singapore neither farms tobacco nor has cigarette factories. While it is true that all of the major transnational tobacco companies such as PMI, BAT and JT have offices in Singapore, it is unlikely that a ban on cigarettes will lead to a significant rise in our unemployment rate.
In fact, the WHO has identified only 2 countries, namely Malawi and Zimbabwe whose economies will be negatively impacted by a cigarette ban due to their dependence on tobacco farming5. Small retailers did experience a fall in cigarette revenue when the law on display bans of tobacco products came into force7. Trade associations such as the Singapore Mini Mart Association have also expressed concerns that a potential ban on menthol flavored cigarettes will badly affect their members6.
In spite of this, laws to reduce tobacco demand were still passed and in fact, are being rachetted up in severity. The minimum age to purchase tobacco is being gradually increased from 18 to 21, the number of smokefree areas are steadily increasing and there are already plans for plain packaging laws for cigarette boxes. So it is apparent that such concerns from retailers do not stand in the way of the aim to reduce and hopefully eliminate demand for tobacco.

Underground Black Market?

The third commonest reason I hear proposed for why Singapore does not just ban cigarettes is that even if we do, it will just drive the cigarette economy underground resulting in a spike in the illegal import and distribution of cigarettes. This effectively does not end the health scourge of smoking on the population and only serves to cost our coffers the loss from tobacco taxes and may even increase crime rates. This argument, if it holds true, can be applied to all other illicit drugs such as marijuana and methamphetamines. So quite apparently this argument cannot hold true. The ability to enforce a ban should be a consideration but not a deterministic factor.


Banning cigarettes is not unprecedented. Bhutan and Turkmenistan have both banned the sale of cigarettes. Perhaps we can take a lesson from how opium came to be prohibited in Singapore.
In the 1800s almost every one in four Chinese adults in Singapore was an opium addict. The push to ban opium came not from the government but from the grassroots. Philanthropists like Chen Su Lan set up free clinics to treat opium addicts and pushed for legislation on prohibition. This came on the back of the Opium Commission that reported on the extent of opium addiction in Singapore and the harm it causes8. The sale of opium was finally banned in 1943. Still in 1998, 40 people were arrested in Singapore for opium addiction.
Just like opium, it may take a hundred years before we can be rid of cigarettes. But just like opium, we are well aware of the harm cigarettes cause. It is time that we take the first steps towards the prohibition of cigarettes.

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Take care.


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How to Quit Smoking – Smoking Cessation in Singapore

“Tobacco is the legal product which, used in moderation and exactly as the manufacturer intended, causes harm to the consumer.” – Federation of European Cancer Societies

Smoking is bad for you. I think that fact has been scientifically proven beyond the shadow of a doubt. Even people who continue to smoke realize this. Smoking damages the lungs. In fact, it can damage the lungs permanently. This is called emphysema. Once a person develops emphysema he will have it forever even if he stops smoking. Smoking greatly increases the risk of developing strokes and heart attacks. Smoking greatly increases the risk of developing not only lung cancer but also a variety of other cancers like stomach cancer, colon cancer, pancreatic cancer and prostate cancer.
Smoking not only harms the smoker. It has also been proven beyond a doubt that second-hand smoke damages health as much as actual smoking. According to the World Health Organisation every year almost 1 million people die as a result of exposure to secondhand smoke.
But to quit smoking is hard. This is due to the highly addictive nature of nicotine and also the fact that smokers get used to the ritual and social aspects of smoking. So while it is easy for non-smokers to say “Why is it so hard? It harms you and your family. It is expensive. It stinks! Why don’t you just stop?!” They, unfortunately, do not take into account the addictive nature of smoking. It is also difficult for non-smokers to empathize with smokers partly contributed by our health authorities’ extremely effective campaign to denormalize smoking in Singapore.
Also Read: Why Can’t Singapore Just Ban Cigarettes?
Also Read: Tobacco Past & Present


How to Quit Smoking (Smoking Cessation)?

It is difficult to get a smoker to quit smoking. In fact, most of them do not even think about it. So when a smoker is contemplating quitting smoking or better yet, has made the decision to want to quit, it is imperative to provide them with as much support as we can. Here in Singapore, there are multiple avenues to access such support.

If you are a friend or family of someone who is trying to quit smoking, learn more about what you can do for them by downloading this easy to read e-guide published by Singapore’s Health Promotion Board.

If you are a smoker reading this and have decided you want to quit, there are many ways you can reach out for support.

1) Join the I Quit Program

I Quit is Singapore’s National Smoking Cessation Program. It provides support for smokers who have the intention to quit smoking. There are many ways to sign up for the I Quit program. The easiest way is probably filling up an online form. I Quit is currently running a program that aims to get smokers to stop smoking in 28 days.
Smokers intending to quit have access to free counselling from trained and certified smoking cessation counsellors just by picking up the phone and calling the I Quit hotline known as Quitline. In fact, while signing up for the program, smokers can opt to have counsellors from Quitline call them instead.
Also, smokers on this program will receive daily SMS to keep them motivated to refrain from smoking. Smokers can also go online to the Health Promotion Board’s website and download self-help material like the Quit Fix Booklet and the I Quit Calendar. There is also community support that smokers intending to quit can reach out to via a Facebook Group known as the I Quit Club.
Just to add a little cherry on top of the Sundae, smokers who manage to remain smoke-free for 28 days will receive a $50 voucher from HPB. If he can remain smoke-free for 3 months, he will receive an additional $30 voucher. If he can make it to 6 months smoke-free there is yet another $20 voucher to be had.

Go down to I Quit Roadshow

Singapore’s Health Promotion Board holds regular smoking cessation roadshows. Go down to any of these road shows to see what they have to offer. You can sign up for a smoking cessation program on the spot.
Details on upcoming roadshows can be found in the I Quit Club page on Facebook.

2) Speak to a Pharmacist

Go to any retail pharmacy like Guardian or Watsons or Unity. Pharmacists are trained to provide smoking cessation counselling. They can also counsel you on the use of Nicotine Replacement Therapy. If the pharmacist feels that you require more intensive behavioural therapy or counselling or that you need to see a Doctor, they can point you in the right direction.

3) See a Doctor

See your friendly neighbourhood GP. Or visit your nearest polyclinic. Or if you are already seeing a Doctor for some other unrelated medical issues, you can always mention to him during your next follow up visit that you wish to get some help to quit smoking. Believe me, your Doctor will be thrilled and will be most eager to help you.
This is arguably the easiest way to go about it. Most Doctors are knowledgeable in smoking cessation and can counsel you on what you need. Be it accessing the national smoking cessation program known as I Quit, or referring you to a trained and certified smoking cessation counsellor or even prescribing you medicines or nicotine replacement therapy to help you quit smoking.
There are 3 so-called “pharmaceutical aids” to help you quit smoking.
The most well known is probably NRT (Nicotine Replacement Therapy). This helps smokers reduce their cravings and side effects of quitting by supplying their bodies with nicotine. It usually comes in the form of chewing gum or lozenge. They are usually taken for a duration of 2 to 3 months.
The 2 other pharmaceutical aids are tablets. One is Bupropion (Zyban) and the other is Varenicline (Champix). Both of these are tablets and can have potential side effects. They are usually taken for 3 months. They help to reduce cravings by activating certain chemicals in the brain. Please discuss with your Doctor if you can benefit from these.
The MOST important thing to remember is that these pharmaceutical aids work much better with behavioural intervention. In other words, do not just take the medicines. You still have to have a quit plan in place. You still have to keep yourself motivated. You still have to receive daily reminders and support to quit. You will still benefit from talking to a smoking cessation counsellor.
Be Strong. Take Care.