Rise in imports of loose tobacco leaves and smokeless tobacco
THE global financial crisis in 2008 may have caused many people here to stub out more expensive cigarettes and opt for unconventional but cheaper alternatives. The latest figures from the Singapore Customs show that higher amounts of ang hoon (loose tobacco leaves) and products such as chewing tobacco were imported in the last three years. These are commonly sold in neighbourhood provision shops and convenience stores.
Last year, imports of ang hoon at 61,150kg were more than double the 2008 figure of 29,634kg. Imports of smokeless tobacco - including the chewing and sucking types - rose from 10,854kg in 2008 to 11,326kg last year. But imports of beedies dipped about 10 per cent to 42,178kg last year, from 47,565kg in 2008. These are slim cigarettes filled with tobacco flakes and wrapped in a leaf. The Customs authorities also foiled attempts to smuggle in beedies, confiscating 42kg last year, up from 6kg in 2008. Some 770kg of smokeless tobacco was also seized by Customs last year, about twice as much as the figure in 2008.
Addiction expert Munidasa Winslow, a psychiatrist in private practice, said the numbers may be a reflection of the economy. The financial crisis worldwide in 2008 may have caused many to fall on hard times, making them switch to cheaper alternatives. There is also a black-market demand for duty-unpaid contraband goods because they are much cheaper.
In Singapore, cigarettes still make up the bulk of local tobacco sales, with 2.43 million kg sold last year, up from 2.12 million kg in 2008. Earlier in February, taxes for non-cigarette tobacco products were raised by between 5 per cent and 10 per cent while those for cigarettes remained the same. A Straits Times check of 15 heartland provision shops revealed that prices of unconventional alternatives have gone up by 10 to 30 cents this year. But people continue to buy them, with most shops reporting steady sales. “They are still cheaper when compared with cigarettes,” said Ms Eileen Huang, 28, who works in a convenience store. A pack of cigarettes costs an average of $12, but chewing tobacco costs between $1 and $2.50 a pack. A bundle of 25 beedies sells for $3 or less while 20g of ang hoon goes for about $3.
Ang hoon is especially popular among the elderly Chinese, while beedies are mostly favoured by young foreign workers from India and Bangladesh, said provision store owner Jessie Lim. Several other shops have also observed younger Singaporeans asking for these cheaper alternatives. Associate Professor Winslow said these products may be “more tempting for young people without purchasing power”. But the higher taxes did curb demand in some shops. Mr Abdul Hamead Jafar, operations manager of a store in Buffalo Road, said sales of ang hoon and beedies have dropped by 10 per cent.
The store raised prices of ang hoon by 30 cents and prices of beedies by 20 cents earlier this year. “Some used to smoke 20 sticks of beedies a day, but now they smoke five to six sticks fewer because of the higher prices,” he added. These products are unfiltered, which means more chemicals like tar enter the body, said Prof Winslow. But the “nicotine hit”, which determines the level of addiction, is about the same as that of cigarettes, he added.
Smoking-related diseases include cancer, heart disease, stroke and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. All are ranked among the nation’s top 10 killers, according to Ministry of Health data. The latest National Health Survey revealed that there are more smokers in Singapore, especially among the youth.
Last year, 14.3 per cent of adults here were smoking daily, up from 12.6 per cent six years ago. Among those aged 18 to 29, the figure stood at 16.3 per cent last year, up from 12.3 per cent in 2004. In a bid to stem the trend, the Health Promotion Board runs smoking-cessation programmes, such as those targeted at workplaces. The Institute of Mental Health also runs personalised smoking-cessation programmes. The consultation charge is $18, excluding medication.