At long last, gum is legal in S'pore,
but there are strings

  Only pharmacists can sell it, and they take names;
another sticky trade issue
  Asian Wall Street Journal
June 4, 2004
SINGAPORE

By CRIS PRYSTAY
Staff Reporter of THE WALL STREET JOURNAL


FOR years, Hidayat Osman got around this city-state's ban on the sale of chewing gum by picking up an occasional pack in neighboring Malaysia.

So it was a pleasant surprise when the 24-year-old saw a few perfectly legal boxes of Wrigley's Orbit chewing gum tucked on a shelf behind a pharmacist's counter here.

"After all these years, it'll be nice to get it locally," he said, as he was about to ask for a pack.

Not so fast. The clerk pointed to a sign that says the pharmacist -- the only person who can legally dispense gum -- was out to lunch. "Wow. It's like a controlled substance," Mr Osman laughed.

After a fierce lobbying effort, Chicago's Wm Wrigley Jr Co began selling Orbit in Singapore on May 20, 12 years after this famously fastidious nation of four million outlawed the sale of gum. The ban came after someone stuck a wad in the door of a high-speed commuter train, causing a rare delay in scheduled service.

Wrigley enlisted the aid of a Washington lobbyist and Illinois Congressman Phil Crane, chairman of the House Ways and Means trade subcommittee, to get chewing gum on the agenda of the US-Singapore Free Trade Agreement three years ago. Singapore parried, at first saying it would only allow sales of medicinal gum prescribed by a doctor. Negotiations dragged on for 2½ years, and eventually the gum ban became the biggest sticking point in the entire trade agreement.

Singapore finally agreed to over-the-counter sales of gum with proven health benefits. Wrigley successfully argued that its Orbit brand of sugar-free gum (with calcium lactate to strengthen tooth enamel) is indeed a health product. But because Orbit is classified as a medical product, the government tightly controls its distribution and marketing. The bottom line: Gum can only be sold by a dentist or pharmacist, who must take down the names of buyers.

"They were tough," Mr Crane said of the talks. As for why so-called therapeutic gum, but not other kinds, made the cut, Mr Crane said: "It seemed very strange to me."

Flush or Pay

Gum is just one of many examples of Singapore's preoccupation with public hygiene. People who spit in public face a possible fine of the equivalent of $586 for a first offense, and twice that for a repeat offense. The city also has fines for people who fail to flush toilets. That law hasn't been enforced much since the government passed the law requiring that all public restrooms be outfitted with toilets that flush automatically.

Littering is also taboo. Small-scale litter, which includes cigarette butts, matchsticks and candy wrappers, yields a fine of up to US$117. Repeat small-scale litterbugs and folks who throw out paper cups or drink cans go to court, where judges might dole out $586 fines and stints of picking up trash.

Keeping Singapore clean was an early obsession of founding father Lee Kuan Yew. "We would have been a grosser, ruder, cruder society had we not made these efforts to persuade our people to change their ways," he recounts in his autobiography.

Singapore's authorities developed a distaste for gum decades ago. The government first debated a ban in 1983 because of "problems caused by spent chewing gum inserted into keyholes and mailboxes and on elevator buttons," Mr Lee writes.

When Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong reproposed the ban on sales of gum to parliament after the incident on the train, "ministers who had studied in America recounted how the underside of lecture theater seats were filthy with chewing gum stuck to them like barnacles," Mr. Lee writes. (It was never illegal to bring some into the country for personal use.)

To date, Singapore has licensed gum products made by several companies, including Wrigley, Impress Gum, a subsidiary of Santa Barbara, Calif-based ADB International Inc, and Pfizer Inc, the maker of Nicorette Gum. Singapore has also approved the sale of two prescription-only gum products: Biotene Dry Mouth Gum, made by Rancho Dominguez, Calif.-based Laclede Inc., and Chlorhexidine Chewing Gum, made by Fertin Pharma AS, which is based in Denmark.

The government recently announced new, stiff penalties for gum litter: Even first-time offenders will have to go to court except in the odd instance that police decide to level a $234 fine.

At a downtown drugstore recently, a pharmacist held up a small brown notebook in which he had jotted down the names of a half-dozen gum purchasers. "It's crazy; I sell much more serious drugs over the counter but don't have to take down names," said the pharmacist, who didn't want his own name taken down. "They only need to register if they buy drugs with codeine. And gum."

Wrigley says Singapore's restrictions are preferable to an outright ban. "It is unusual," says Christopher Perille, Wrigley's senior director of corporate communications. "Singapore is the only place in the world with a ban, and with these kind of restrictions."

The company says its lobbying campaign in Singapore was worth it, despite the market's tiny size. "There's many examples in our history of things that may have not made short-term financial sense but was the right thing to do in a philosophical or long-term sense," says Mr. Perille.

'Why Start Now?'

It has some work to do rebuilding the market in Singapore. "It's been so long since I chewed it, I don't really have the craving," said Alex Ang, a 28-year-old graphic designer. "Why start now?"

Wrigley is planning a print and billboard marketing campaign to reacquaint Singaporeans with gum, and to tell them what they have to do to get it. That involves more negotiations and fancy footwork.

All ads for medical products must be approved by the Health Sciences Authority. In-store ads are restricted to the pharmacists' counter, an HSA spokeswoman said.

Many of the ads in Wrigley's current campaign show large graphs that illustrate how chewing more Orbit gum will improve oral health over time. Beyond the calcium lactate -- a substance Wrigley claims can help "remineralize" tooth enamel -- ads for Orbit White, another Wrigley product approved in Singapore, play up how it's chief ingredient, sodium hexametaphosphate, helps whiten teeth.

"It's not about the fun, it's not about the flavor. It's going to be more about the benefits," Mr Perille says.

Wrigley is also making a big marketing push aimed at dentists. In addition to free samples dentists can give to patients, Wrigley also plans to pump up its contributions to the World Dental Federation.

The WDF has promised to encourage its Singapore members to sell Orbit in their clinics. "It is very unusual," concedes Choo Teck Chuan, head of the World Dental Federation's Singapore branch and chairman of the association's global education committee. "I don't think dentists in other countries sell gum."


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