You can still get tobacco products in Singapore. But from 2017, shops won’t be allowed to display them. According to MOH, the reason for banning tobacco from being displayed at the point of sale is “to prevent our youth from picking up the smoking habit, and to help individuals who are trying to quit smoking.”
According to a report by CNA, “tobacco products need to be out of sight from the public at all times. Exceptions will be made in the process of restocking the display unit or during a sales transaction, unless the staff carrying out these actions stops to do something else.” That said, it seems that shops selling tobacco will be allowed to display a text-only price list that conforms to a standard format. This is to “facilitate transactions and ensure a level playing field while preventing misuse as a form of advertisement”.
What I don’t understand is this: If the government can ban e-cigarettes and shisha, why can’t they just ban cigarettes completely? Cigarettes cause far more harm to the smokers and have greater negative externalities. According to HPB’s website, cigarette accounts for 5.4 million deaths a year worldwide. Compare this with the WHO statistic that 69,000 people die from opioid (e.g. heroin and morphine) overdoes a year worldwide. A hundred times more people die from smoking cigarettes than from being overdose on all forms of opioids. We have banned heroin, have very harsh punishment for using, smuggling, selling heroin, yet we allow cigarettes. Why?
Some people suggest that it’s because vice/luxury items are a major source of tax revenue and thus are unlikely to be phased out anytime soon. There are also sentiments that it’s because so many people are already addicted to cigarettes that there will be a significant political backlash (i.e. impact on next election results) if there was a flat out ban on cigarettes. All these are the unfortunate realities of the world we live in. After all, no single country in the world has successfully banned cigarettes yet. So it’s no wonder that Singapore isn’t able to.
That said, I am really glad that our government has taken the bold move to ban the display of cigarettes at the point of sales. And we have to thank the Malaysians for being able to do this. Why? Because Singapore is in the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). The TPP aimed to lower tariffs and reduce other barriers to trade. This included what’s known as Investor-State Dispute Systems (ISDS) that allow commercial interests to challenge state regulations without going through a nation’s ordinary legal system. These ISDS provide a special path for individuals and companies who believe that their economic rights protected by the treaty have been harmed. The ISDS allow these individuals and companies to bring claims before private arbitrators rather than judges. More crucially, the “law” that is applied in these cases is not the full domestic law of the nation, with its well-established means for balancing public health and individual interests. Rather the law that is applied is the law of the treaty, which is designed to end protectionism and promote trade.
In the past, there have already been cases where big tobacco companies used other free trade treaties to challenge laws in other countries that try to regulate the promotion and advertisement of cigarettes. Don’t believe me? Watch this:
Which means that under the TPP, the big tobacco companies could have had the means to challenge a move like what we are going to implement here in Singapore. Thankfully, Malaysia, in 2013, proposed that tobacco should not be included in the ISDS. This “carve-out” was to ensure that that health considerations could take precedence over expanded trade. It took a while, and some compromises (e.g. tobacco leaf is not included in the carve-out), but it seemed that in the most recently concluded negotiations on the TPP, there was agreement to include the carve-out on most tobacco products. And that is why, even though Singapore desperately wants the TPP to work, it is still able to implement this ban on the point of sales display of tobacco products.
So. Malaysia. Thank you. And yay to MOH for having the courage to do this.
[Featured image: Mediacorp file photo]