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Young smokers turn to noxious ‘rollies’

  Thursday, 09 l 12 l 2010 Source: The Straits Times   
By: Fiona Low

Roll-your-own smokes could harm lungs more: Docs 

smoking-rolliesPREVIOUSLY favoured by the older generation, ang hoon, or loose tobacco leaves, are gaining popularity among young people as a cheaper alternative to cigarettes. A bag of tobacco leaves – readily available in supermarkets and convenience stores – costs as little as $5, enough to fill 50 cigarettes or more. But doctors say these roll-your-own smokes – commonly known as “rollies” – could be more damaging to the lungs. Unlike most regular cigarettes, they come without filters to block larger smoke particles from entering the lungs.

Users of rollies typically put a wad of tobacco leaves on a small rectangle of paper, which is then rolled into a tube and smoked from one end. “Without a filter, the smoke will be more concentrated and this could cause greater irritation to the throat. Over time, this could lead to an even greater risk of mouth and throat cancer,” said Dr Ong Kian Chung, a respiratory specialist at Mount Elizabeth Medical Centre.

Ms JoAnn Taylor, deputy director of the substance abuse department at the Health Promotion Board (HPB), said: “Loose tobacco leaves contain many of the harmful chemicals, such as carbon monoxide, nicotine and tar, that are also found in cigarettes.” Those who go for rollies face similar risks of contracting throat and lung cancer, she added.

Figures from Singapore Customs show that the amount of loose tobacco leaves sold more than doubled between 2006 and last year – from 38,174kg to 82,994kg. There are 38 brands of tobacco leaves and prices range from $5 to $15 for about 20g, enough for more than 50 rollies. This is much cheaper than paying about $10 for a pack of 20 cigarettes.

Calling it an area for concern, Dr Lam Pin Min, chairman of the Government Parliamentary Committee for Health and an MP for Ang Mo Kio GRC, said: “This disparity in the unit cost may be one reason why younger people, as well as low income earners, are turning to these products. “It may be necessary for the Ministry of Health or Ministry of Finance to review and address this disparity.” Imposing appropriate taxes may deter young people from using tobacco leaves, he added.

As things stand now, the cost savings are a big allure for users like copywriter Alexander Lim, who has been smoking mostly rollies for the past seven years. “Cigarettes are more convenient but the cost savings from rollies are quite ridiculous,” said the 26-year-old, adding that a packet of tobacco leaves is good for up to a month of use, versus less than a week with a packet of cigarettes.

Doctors have warned that rollies could lead to increased consumption. “Because the amount of tobacco is not controlled, users could end up putting more in each cigarette, even though they are under the impression that they are smoking the same number of cigarettes each day,” said Dr Hui Kok Pheng, a respiratory specialist in private practice. “Also because they are cheaper, users might be more inclined to increase their habit,” added Dr Hui, the former president of the Asthma Association of Singapore.

While HPB figures show that the overall proportion of young people who have tried smoking has declined from 26 per cent in 2000 to 16 per cent last year, doctors have seen more patients who suffer from lung disease at a younger age in the past five to 10 years. Dr Ong said some diagnosed as suffering from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease now are in their 40s to 50s. In the past, they were usually diagnosed in their 60s to 70s.

“This could be due to more people smoking at an earlier age,” he said. The disease is a condition where the airways in the lungs become narrowed. Smoking is one of the main causes of the disease. Said Dr Ong: “Young people who begin smoking at a younger age may be more vulnerable to the harmful effects as their lung function is still developing. In the long run, this could lead to greater health problems later in life.”

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