Health Minister shares country's experience at summit
SINGAPORE wants to become a place where being smoke-free is the norm. It was heading that way when smoking rates went down from 18.3 per cent in 1992 to an all-time low of 12.6 per cent in 2004.
But numbers have crept up and now stand at 14.3 per cent, due to a 'significant increase' in younger smokers aged 18-29, said Health Minister Gan Kim Yong yesterday.
To counter this, Singapore announced earlier this month that it will align tax for all tobacco products to stop users from shifting to cheaper alternatives, and getting non-smokers to help smokers quit.
Speaking at the opening of the World Congress on Tobacco or Health, Mr Gan said this bad habit puts a toll on health-care expenditure, and results in loss of productivity and absenteeism.
For individuals, spending on tobacco means 'income is diverted away from meaningful and more important household purchases and investment such as healthy food and education'.
Painting a broader picture, he blamed tobacco use for killing five million people worldwide each year - or about 12 per cent of adult deaths.
On top of that, another 600,000 people die from inhaling second-hand smoke yearly. He said: 'Tobacco kills more than tuberculosis, HIV/Aids and malaria combined.'
He also told the 2,600 delegates from 124 countries - including six other health ministers - of Singapore's fight against smoking which dates back four decades.
'We were the first country in Asia to ban tobacco advertisements in 1971. We have also progressively banned smoking in public places since 1970.
'In 2004, we were the first country in Asia to implement requirements for all cigarette packets to bear graphic pictures warning smokers about the dangers of smoking.'
The five-day meeting, held every three years since 1967, is recognised as an important forum for international collaboration on the subject, and is attended by policymakers, health-care workers, scientists and academics.
This year's event at Suntec Convention Centre was organised by the Health Promotion Board (HPB). Participants are expected to discuss issues such as whether plain or gory packaging for cigarettes is more effective in reducing its use, whether rich tobacco companies are sabotaging stop-smoking drives and the effectiveness of smoke-free zones and taxation.
HPB chief executive officer Ang Hak Seng in his speech said Mr Gan has given him the task of bringing smoking in the country down to 10 per cent by 2020.
He revealed that less than 8 per cent of smokers who quit were able to stay off for a year because of peer pressure from friends who smoke.
The HPB will try to counter this with support for those trying to make it, he said, noting that the best encouragement is from a former smoker.
Dr Margaret Chan, the World Health Organisation's director-general, in her keynote address at the opening ceremony yesterday, hit out at tobacco firms for trying to derail anti- smoking campaigns in countries like Uruguay, Norway, Australia and Turkey.
'Big money can speak louder than any moral, ethical or public health argument, and can trample even the most damning scientific evidence.'
Calling smoking a 'killing addiction', she said: 'Tobacco use is the world's No. 1 preventable killer.'
Stopping smoking, she added, 'would deliver the single biggest preventive blow to heart disease, cancer, diabetes and respiratory disease'.
Dr Surin Pitsuwan, Asean secretary-general, said 125 million of Asean's population of 600 million are smokers. Some member countries, he added, still rely heavily on the revenue from tobacco, and ignore the expense caused by smoking.
He announced, to great applause, that the Asean secretariat in Jakarta will be smoke-free from April 1.
Yesterday, the 10 member nations also pledged to create a smoke-free region.