Singapore started to legislate against tobacco fifty years ago. Today it is one of the most smoke-free countries in the world

23 April 2023

By Ruetir

Between Malaysia and the Indonesian archipelago is Singapore, a city-state of six million inhabitants that has barely been an independent country for fifty years. Its growth since then has been spectacular, and it has managed to reach the top positions in the world in the list of countries with the highest GDP per capita.

On the B-side of the album, an advance that is not directly reflected in its finances, but in the day-to-day life of its citizens: progressive restrictions on tobacco that have been cornering it. The places and circumstances in which smoking is allowed have been reduced over the years, and A walk through its streets in 2023 allows one to sense where the shots are going if one looks at what is not there: butts on the ground. No clouds of smoke.

slow but steady progress

Singapore began to legislate against tobacco in 1970, just five years after it was born as an independent country. In that year it prohibited smoking in cinemas and buses. A year later, he banned any type of tobacco-related advertising.

In 1986 he launched his National Tobacco Control Program under the banner ‘Towards a Non-Smoking Nation’, and from then on, new bans and restrictions appeared every few years. Among them, raising the legal age for smoking from 18 to 21 years or prohibiting it in many public spaces.

The reason, a mixture between an early obsession with preventing avoidable deaths related to smoking and the obsession with being a clean and orderly country. The latter is well understood with another measure: unless it is by medical prescription, it is prohibited to chew gum in Singapore.

According to the government itself, to “eradicate the problems created by chewing gum thrown away in public places such as cinemas or parks, and common areas such as elevators, stairs and corridors”, as well as the cost of cleaning that they entail. Something similar motivates a part of the restrictions on tobacco.

Five decades after the first measurements, Singapore has a smoking prevalence of 10%, which is very low in recent decades and well below other developed nations. And not so far from the target set: 5%. By the way: the vast majority of smokers in Singapore are men.

Although the restrictions are gradual and constant, the effects are long-term. If today the prevalence of smoking is 10%, it was double 30 years ago. Lowering it from 20% to 10% has taken three decades.

Packages at ten euros

For a Spaniard, it has not been strange for years to be free of tobacco smoke in closed public spaces, but it is not so common spend hours walking down the street without running into the smoke of any smoker.And again, the complete absence of cigarette butts on the streets. That’s Singapore.

It’s not easy to spot a smoker in Singapore, but one of our taxi drivers, Zhāng, a driver for Grab, Southeast Asia’s equivalent of Uber, was. In addition to coming out of his own initiative to talk about a certain type of nightlife in Singapore, when we questioned him about this topic in a car that oozes the smell of tobacco, he was as blunt as could be expected: “I have been a smoker for many years and every time is more difficult, it’s not smoking and that’s it, it’s going thinking that you have to wait to get to that place. Now they have raised the price of the tobacco package. We are used to the fact that every year there is a new prohibition and every two or three years tobacco is more expensive”.

The price of a pack of twenty cigarettes is around 15 Singaporean dollars (10.20 euros). Ten years ago, it was around 10 Singapore dollars (6.8 euros). Much more expensive than in Spain, but if we take GDP per capita into account, a package costs 0.02% in Spain and 0.014% in Singapore.

The consequences of all these prohibitions and measures aimed at reducing smoking they are noticed at street level. In several days in the city, traveling day and night in areas as different as Marina Bay Sands (the tourist enclave par excellence, with the most recognizable skyline) or the beaches of Sentosa Island; or China Town and Little India, very different in every way from the first, not a single cigarette butt has been sighted on the ground. And it is not that the cleaning of the latter, especially the latter, is comparable to that of the former.

Smokers, for the most part, have been sighted in groups, or dedicated to their specific areas where smoking is allowed, marked with yellow paint so they don’t get out of it; or in what are not areas marked as such, but the gaps on the map that escape the restrictions. For example, the outer corners of shopping centers, without entering the passageways from public transport to the doors of the center. Only a couple of youngsters were seen smoking where they didn’t belong, in the back of a Sentosa villa, in a blind spot between streetlights, already at night.

In many environments such as parks, squares or gardens we find signs that are unfriendly reminiscent of cigarette seen, smoker fined. Even if they are open spaces.

There are ways to get around certain measures or prohibitions. Our taxi driver tells us that “when I have to go north I take the opportunity to buy tobacco in Johor”, a Malaysian city an hour’s drive from Singapore. “It’s cheaper there, but I can’t go back to Singapore with so much tobacco.”

And if someone has the happy idea of ​​vaping, because it is not tobacco and there is no problem, meeeec, a horn like a club. The country’s government completely banned in 2018, both vapers and electronic cigarettes: do not buy, use or possess them. Incidentally, that same year he increased tobacco taxes for the first time in four years. Somewhat earlier, shisha or alternative products with nicotine were also charged.

Some countries are joining Singapore in its efforts to eradicate smoking, and one of the most prominent is New Zealand, which introduced a generational ban in 2021. Thus, those born after 2009 would already be banned for life from buying tobacco. Singapore took the opportunity to probe the idea, but it was not effective… for now.

Perhaps later, since the introduction of gradual measures for fifty years has allowed the development of a virtuous circle: the measures reduce smoking, and with this, the acceptance of new and harsher measures is increasing. So maybe later the idea will find enough support.

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