Saturday 25 February 2012

Turning off the deadly 'light' on cigarette packs

No-go too for 'mild', 'low-tar' as they give false sense of safety
By Poon Chian Hui, The Straits Times, 24 Feb 2012

'LIGHT' cigarettes will soon be a thing of the past here due to new rules that ban misleading descriptions on packets.

Tobacco firms will also be barred from using other words such as 'mild', which can lead smokers to believe the brand is healthy.

In fact, there is no evidence that 'light' cigarettes are any less dangerous than regular ones, said Health Promotion Board (HPB) chief executive Ang Hak Seng.

The ban, which kicks in from March next year, will affect about a quarter of the brands sold in Singapore.

Other changes include a fresh set of graphic images to illustrate the damage smoking can cause to the human body. These will be placed on outer packaging for the first time to boost their impact.

Each cigarette will be allowed to contain no more than 10mg of tar, down from 15mg at present. The maximum amount of nicotine will be reduced from 1.3mg to 1 mg.

A new health information notice will also be printed on packs to tell smokers that the cigarette contains other chemicals such as carbon monoxide and ammonia.

This will replace the tar and nicotine levels currently displayed on each pack.

Small cigars, called cigarillos, will be sold in packets of 20 instead of 10 to discourage non-smokers from experimenting.

The changes follow a 2010 amendment to the tobacco laws. At the time, the Ministry of Health announced in Parliament that it planned to tighten the rules to clamp down on smoking.

Tobacco companies were told about the changes by the HPB yesterday, and given a year to implement them. The board will enforce the new rules together with the Health Sciences Authority.

The latest National Health Survey in 2010 showed that about 14 per cent of Singapore residents aged 18 to 69 smoked cigarettes every day.

The move will bring Singapore's restrictions closer to international benchmarks. For example, 73 other countries have banned misleading descriptions under the World Health Organisation's Framework Convention on Tobacco Control. They include Sweden and Australia.

Mr Ang pointed out that smokers struggling to quit tend to switch to brands labelled 'mild', 'light' or 'low-tar', as they believe them to be less dangerous.

A HPB study in 2009 found that 63 per cent of smokers thought 'light' cigarettes were less harmful than the regular ones.
'The reality is that smoking kills, regardless of what type of cigarette it is,' said Mr Ang.

The graphic images on packets were introduced in 2004, and last updated in 2006. They are rotated every few years as their effect tends to wear off eventually, as smokers get used to seeing the same pictures.

Some of the changes echo the results of a public consultation in 2009.

Sixty eight per cent agreed that a general health warning would be more useful than specifying the amount of tar and nicotine in each cigarette.

Another 62 per cent said cigarillos should be sold in bigger packs. These mini-cigars currently cost about $8 for a box of 10. Regular cigarettes go for about $12 for 20 sticks.

'A pack size of fewer than 20 is termed as a kiddy pack, and has been recognised by the World Health Organisation as a marketing strategy to target vulnerable populations with low purchasing powers, such as the young,' said the HPB.

It added that the lower limits on tar and nicotine do not mean cigarettes will be safer than before. They are actually there to prevent manufacturers from adding excessive amounts of these chemicals.

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