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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