Singapore relents on chewing gum ban - on doctor's orders

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The Independent Online

Singapore, the tightly regimented city state that prohibits acts ranging from spitting in public to leaving lavatories unflushed, has relaxed its ban on one antisocial pursuit: chewing gum.

Singapore, the tightly regimented city state that prohibits acts ranging from spitting in public to leaving lavatories unflushed, has relaxed its ban on one antisocial pursuit: chewing gum.

The import, manufacture and sale of gum was outlawed 10 years ago as part of a campaign to keep the city squeaky clean. The authoritarian government argued that lumps of discarded gum were difficult to prise off the streets, while gum stuck in subway doors was delaying Singapore's otherwise super-efficient trains.

While the country has become slightly more laid back in recent years, locals are not jumping for joy at the latest pronouncement. The ban has been only partially rescinded, allowing gum to be chewed by people with a prescription.

The move was grudgingly agreed to as part of a free trade deal with the United States, which insisted on "a modest entry point" for American gum manufacturers. Singapore's chief negotiator, Tommy Koh, said yesterday that "sugarless gum prescribed by doctors and dentists as having therapeutic and medicinal benefits will be sold in pharmacies".

The ban has been the source of many jokes about Singapore, which also imposes heavy fines for dropping litter or urinating in lifts. The country's elder statesman, Lee Kuan Yew, once said: "If you can't think because you can't chew, try a banana." The issue had been a sticking-point between Singapore and America during two years of negotiations to finalise the trade deal.

Mr Koh hailed the agreement as a difficult compromise, saying: "In the interest of resolving all outstanding issues in the spirit of goodwill that exists between the two delegations, we were extremely ingenious." But even smokers prescribed nicotine-substitute gum are not yet salivating, for the new trade regime will not come into effect until 2004.

Some locals said that allowing gum to be available on prescription only was ridiculous and called for the ban to be scrapped. "It's a small step towards a good change," said Toru Umatani, a 37-year-old fund manager.

A year after the ban was introduced, authorities said the number of wads of chewing gum found at railway stations had plunged to an average of two a day, from 525 pieces before the ban. Chewing-gum addicts have not been entirely deprived over the past decade – they have simply crossed the border to neighbouring Malaysia and bought their supplies there.

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