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Review Ban On Shisha in Singapore

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OPEN LETTER ON THE BAN ON SHISHA TOBACCO IN SINGAPORE

 To the Ministry of Health (MOH) and other relevant authorities, 

I write in respect of the ban on shisha tobacco in Singapore. Should this prohibition go through, my view is that the detriment done to businesses and Singapore's social scape will be irreparable. 

Cultural Depletion

Shisha is integral to the Middle Eastern culture, and lends a very special quality to the Arab Street area. Here is one of the last worthwhile bastions in Singapore that properly combines soul, heritage and leisure. Such qualities of any place can only come about organically, and cannot be achieved or purchased by any amount of governmental effort or money. 

Arab Street is such a place. It teems with unique characteristics (carpets, anyone?) in the day, but really comes to life (shisha, drinks and happy young people) at night. This is an atmosphere that many are fiercely proud of, and will be saddened to see go. Here, character and identity have properly developed and flourished. To date, the reality is that the tax monies and resources that have gone into trying to improve Singapore's image as a soulless stalwart have yet to see fruit.  Removing what we already have with a sweeping move is at best uncalled for; and at worst, destructive.

Disadvantages of a Ban

Next, I submit that a ban should always be a last resort. Banning rather than regulating is generally the easy way out, and is often against public interest. Bans are largely regressive and weaken socio-economic health. A ban does not only affect retailers and consumers. Its reach extends to an entire supply chain of the industry (importers, manufacturers, suppliers, transporters) as well. Such a ban would hurt or destroy healthy going concerns, and in the longer term, have a stifling effect on entrepreneurship and business innovation. 

Further, Dr. Muhd Faishal Ibrahim stated in Parliament that the ban is aimed at preventing the "proliferation and entrenchment" of shisha smoking here. Today Online cited a ‘Students Health Survey,’ stating that 9% of students "used alternative tobacco products" in 2012, up from 2% in 2009.

With respect, the word "use" is undefined and could mean anything from a single puff to daily use. Even taken at their worst, the statistics on their own hardly seem alarming. Indeed, most shisha consumption is purely social, and has raised no pressing concerns in society today. A blanket ban on the industry appears unnecessary.

A ban strips the public of choice. This exacerbates existing dissatisfaction, and only serves to widen the growing gap between the authorities and the people. 

Further Information Requested

I would appreciate more information on the considerations that went into the decision. In particular, I would like to know whether the following questions have been considered, and if so, the detailed and analysed answers to them:

  1. 1. How was the ban decided upon? Were other agencies consulted on the matter, and if so, what were the main points that they had raised? 
  2. 2. What will the effect on the trade industry be?
  3. 3. Have the authorities considered consumer or public opinion on this matter? 
  4. 4. Were business owners in the Arab Street area consulted?
  5. 5. Similarly, were other businesses down the supply chain consulted? 
  6. 6. Was there an in-depth study done on the effect that the ban will have on those businesses and the lives behind them? 
  7. 7. In particular, Dr Faishal and the MOH supposes that approximately 1.5 years would suffice for businesses to deplete their existing stock and “restructure”. Respectfully, it is unclear as to what “restructuring” entails. Has the Ministry considered how these businesses meant to restructure, and their chances of surviving, let alone thriving, post-restructuring?
  8. 8. Have the authorities considered how the ban would affect the atmosphere of the area and the consequent effect on the tourism industry?
  9. 9. What did the ‘Student Health Survey’ mean by the "use" of "alternative tobacco products, including shisha”? In particular, what are the other tobacco products used? Of the 9% of students who had used these, how many used shisha? What was the nature and frequency of the use of shisha?
  10. 10. If shisha is no less harmful than other tobacco products as MOH asserts, why are other tobacco products still allowed for sale and import? It is difficult to understand the argument that shisha should be banned if its usage remains less entrenched than cigarettes, and would pose fewer practical problems to ban. While this may be true, what then of, for instance, cigars? The same argument would apply, yet cigars remain exempt from the ban. Are harmful elements then acceptable so long as they bring in tax revenue? If so, this undermines the 'health' or even practicable justifications being put forward. This is starkly inconsistent and cannot be acceptable.
  11. 11. If misinformation of consumers was a key consideration, as Dr Faishal said, why would increased public education not adequately address this?

 

Conclusion and Alternative Proposals

Singapore is already famous for our overregulation and hyper-commercialisation. While a formidable economic presence today, we languish far behind most others in terms of culture and talent. In any case, this latest move only fuels the perception of repression, which certainly does nothing to improve our image.

In this case, surely our Ministries are capable of balancing factors to produce more appropriate solutions. A better alternative that the authorities could consider is regulation coupled with consumer education. For instance, taxes on importers and retailers can be raised. Establishments providing shisha for consumption can be limited to a certain area (as they generally already are). Further, these places could be required to put up signage warning of the health risks associated with smoking it. 

For the sake of transparency and retaining public trust, I ask for a considered, informative and detailed response.

Thank you.

Sincerely,

Isabelle Yeo

 

Photo credit: http://www.mydestination.com/singapore/travel-articles/721296/hari-raya-haji



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