Opening Address by Minister for Health, Mr Gan Kim Yong at the 15th World Congress on Tobacco Or Health (WCTOH), Suntec Singapore International Convention and Exhibition Centre, 20th March 2012, 4.30pm

Global Burden of Tobacco

      It gives me great pleasure to join you at the opening of the 15th World Congress on Tobacco or Health (WCTOH), which is being held for the first time in Southeast Asia. I would like to extend a very warm welcome to our delegates, especially our visitors who have travelled from overseas to join us today in this conference. Being granted the privilege to host the WCTOH, the most prestigious conference in tobacco control, is an important milestone in Singapore’s fight against tobacco abuse and smoking.

2.    The burden of tobacco cannot be overstated. Tobacco use is responsible for five million or 12 per cent of all deaths of adults above the age of 30 globally each year, with many of these deaths occurring prematurely. An additional 600,000 people are estimated to die from the effects of second-hand smoke. Tobacco kills more than tuberculosis, human immunodeficiency virus/acquired immune deficiency syndrome (HIV/AIDS) and malaria combined.

3.    Compared to the rest of the world, the Asia Pacific Region has the greatest number of smokers, estimated at 662 million; the highest prevalence of smoking among males of as high as 60%–70% in some countries; and the fastest increase in smoking by women and young people.

4.    Tobacco also asserts an economic cost to the economy through direct and indirect costs, including healthcare expenditure, productivity loss, absenteeism and other socioeconomic costs. At the individual level, aside from healthcare expenditure that arise due to tobacco-related diseases, spending on tobacco also means that income is diverted away from meaningful and more important household purchases and investment such as healthy food and education.

5.    Hence, the theme of this year’s WCTOH is most apt indeed – Towards a Tobacco-Free World: Planning Globally, Acting Locally. We need to join our hands together to work against eliminating the scourge of tobacco, but as always, policies and programmes must be appropriate to the local context for them to be effective.

Singapore’s Tobacco Control Programme

6.    Singapore’s tobacco control journey began back in the 1970s. We were the first country in Asia to ban tobacco advertisements in 1971. We have also progressively banned smoking in public areas 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.

7.    But legislation is only part of the tobacco control picture. We launched the National Tobacco Control Programme in 1986, which was a comprehensive long-term programme for smoking control – coincidentally, its theme was “Towards a Nation of Non-Smokers”. Multi-pronged strategies have since been rolled out to promote a smoke-free lifestyle in Singapore. These included tobacco taxes to make tobacco products less affordable, conducting national mass media campaigns, providing smoking cessation services, working with our colleagues in the Ministry of Education to introduce tobacco control education into our school curricula, and working with the Ministry of Environment and Water Resources and the National Environment Agency to promote the expansion of smoke-free spaces.

Singapore’s Smoking Prevalence

8.    Our efforts have paid off - our smoking prevalence dropped from 18.3% in 1992 to an all-time low of 12.6% in 2004. We have come a long way indeed from the days of the smoky 1970s, when the seats on our buses were always scarred with burn marks from smokers stubbing out on the plastic covers. I am glad that young Singaporeans today will have fresher memories of their youth.

9.    Despite having one of the lowest prevalence of smoking in the world, challenges remain and more needs to be done. The recent National Health Survey 2010 showed that the prevalence of smoking had increased from 12.6% in 2004 to 14.3% in 2010. Similar to global trends, there has been a significant increase in the prevalence of younger male and female smokers aged between 18 – 29. This is a cause for concern, as we do not want our more of our young to pick up smoking and to continue the habit into their older years.

Enhancing Singapore’s Tobacco Control Efforts

10.    We are therefore working on enhancing our national tobacco control programme to curb this rise in smoking prevalence. This year’s tobacco control campaign will continue to reach out to youth, young adult smokers and other priority groups. We will pay attention to the role non-smokers play in creating a supportive peer environment where being smoke-free is the social norm. We are also working to refine our youth initiatives and help current smokers quit the habit by providing them with supportive social networks.

11.    We will continue our regular review of Singapore’s legislative measures on tobacco control to incorporate the best international practices, as well as to address the changing social behaviour trends among Singaporeans. Just earlier this month, the Singapore government announced further amendments to our tobacco control legislation. We are introducing a fresh set of graphic health warnings, banning misleading descriptors on packaging, and lowering the tar and nicotine limits in cigarettes as well as replacing the requirement to print tar and nicotine yield levels with a new health information requirement. We will also be expanding our smoke-free spaces.

12.    Taxation remains one of the most effective tobacco control strategies. This is why Singapore is harmonising the tax across all tobacco products in stages to prevent shifts towards lower cost products. Continued vigilance from our Singapore Customs colleagues is also vital, to prevent an influx of low-price smuggled tobacco.

13.    We have to be continuously renewing and reviewing our strategy even as the tobacco industry devises increasingly innovative marketing strategies targeted especially at the young. We also need to follow policy developments in other countries closely to see if we can learn from each other.

International Cooperation

14.However, Singapore’s efforts alone will come to nothing if there is no global consensus and cooperation on tobacco control. We need to work hand in hand to stamp out the global tobacco epidemic. This is why in May 2004, we ratified the WHO Framework Convention for Tobacco Control (FCTC), signifying our firm conviction to participate in the international effort to control tobacco consumption. I am pleased to note that Singapore has been compliant with all six components of MPOWER.

15.    At the regional level, the Health Ministers from the 10 ASEAN Member States made a commitment at the 10th ASEAN Health Ministers Meeting in July 2010 to address health and tobacco control as one of the priority measures in healthy living. To achieve this, Singapore alongside other ASEAN countries will be working towards a vision of a “Smoke-free ASEAN”.

WCTOH

16.    The WCTOH is a prime example of the global effort against tobacco. We have here with us more than 2,000 conference participants from over 124 countries. We have also the privilege of an elite panel of speakers, including the Director-General of the WHO and Health Ministers as well as prominent academics in the field. Between them, they have a vast array of experience in policy-making, tobacco control research and programme implementation. The WCTOH therefore presents all stakeholders in tobacco control the opportunity to interact with each other, to gain new perspectives and to obtain updates on the global situation.

17.    I am confident that you will find the conference extremely beneficial as we work towards a tobacco-free world. I wish everyone an enjoyable evening and a fruitful conference ahead of you.

Thank you.

 

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