SINGAPORE: Members of Parliament (MP) have urged authorities to curb smoking in homes, citing residents' complaints about secondhand smoke wafting into their flats and the health risks associated with it.
This comes as Parliament on Monday (Sep 10) passed amendments to the Smoking (Prohibition in Certain Places) Act, which allow the Government to designate more no-smoking zones and give officers more enforcement powers.
But the MPs said the Bill failed to address secondhand smoke from neighbours' homes.
"We are now doing a lot to protect people from secondhand smoke in public areas," Nee Soon GRC MP Louis Ng said. "But the concern which has been raised in this House before is: What are we doing to protect people from secondhand smoke in their own homes?"
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Tanjong Pagar GRC MP and surgeon Chia Shi-Lu said secondhand smoke contains hundreds of toxic chemicals, of which about 70 can cause cancer.
"It can lead to coronary heart disease, stroke and lung cancer. It can cause asthma attacks, respiratory infections and sudden infant death syndrome," he added. "There is no risk-free level of exposure to secondhand smoke."
Over the years, Dr Chia said he has received numerous complaints from residents about the "nuisance and unhealthy effects of neighbours’ secondhand smoke drifting into their flats".
Likewise, Mr Ng said many of his residents complain about being affected by secondhand smoke when neighbours smoke at their windows or balconies, especially as housing units are close to each other.
"Imagine being exposed to and having to tolerate secondhand smoke from your neighbours every day for years with the only reprieve being moving out altogether," he said.
Jurong GRC MP Rahayu Mahzam recalled how one of her residents, a lung cancer survivor living in a condominium, had to constantly close his windows and stuff cloth into the gap below his main door because his neighbour had a habit of smoking at the window.
Although the resident approached the condo managing agent and National Environment Agency for help, Mdm Rahayu said "there was little that could be done" except for advising and encouraging the neighbour to stop smoking from the window.
"The situation improved after some time but would recur once in a while," she added. "This is clearly not the most ideal resolution of the matter."
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Nee Soon GRC MP Lee Bee Wah said conflicts between HDB neighbours involving cigarette smoke entering other houses are "increasingly on the rise".
"For years, non-smokers have been complaining about neighbours smoking at their window ledges, along common corridors and at landings between staircases," Ang Mo Kio GRC MP Gan Thiam Poh said.
"Families with vulnerable young children and elderly members are particularly concerned."
WHAT CAN AUTHORITIES DO?
To protect these individuals, Mr Ng asked if the law could be extended to prohibit smoking in a private home at a window or door that is within five metres of a neighbour’s windows and doors.
"These restrictions are based on the logic that cigarette smoke can be expelled up to five metres away," he said.
Tanjong Pagar GRC MP Joan Pereira proposed that those who want to smoke in their homes must ensure that cigarette smoke does not escape their flats.
"In other words, windows and doors should be closed when smoking. Smokers may consider installing an air filter in their rooms. They should not be standing near the windows, doors or corridors to smoke," she said.
"If smoke is detected outside of the flat, the resident should then be considered to have violated the law."
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Mdm Rahayu suggested penalties for expelling secondhand smoke out of a residential home.
"If someone repeatedly commits the offence, it would be possible to track the unit from which the smoke comes from and issue a notice," she said, adding that enforcement should be done in phases, with a warning issued first.
"In any case, the legislation would send a strong message about the seriousness of the matter and deter residents from smoking at the windows or balconies."
Dr Chia wants a tougher approach, calling for smoking in HDB flats to be banned. He said smoking areas can be set up near each HDB block. "This approach also protects the health of smokers' families," he said.
SHOULD AUTHORITIES STEP IN?
However, Mdm Rahayu acknowledged that there are residents who feel strongly about regulation that "impinges on what they can or cannot do at home".
Mr Gan said "very unhappy" smokers have told him that they want a limit to the measures against smoking, including the 10 per cent increase to the tobacco excise duty.
"They ask for understanding from non-smokers and protest the deprivation of their spaces of freedom and enjoyment," he said.
Still, other MPs had a different opinion.
While "everyone deserves the freedom to do what he or she likes in their own homes as long as we do not break the law or harm anyone", Dr Lee said smoking at home can harm family members and neighbours.
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Mr Ng pointed to a US ban on smoking in public housing to improve indoor air quality and reduce residents’ exposure to secondhand smoke.
"According to a nationwide study they conducted, people who lived in homes where smoking was prohibited were 60 per cent more likely to quit smoking for at least 30 days than people without this prohibition," he added.
GOVERNMENT WARY OF SUCH MEASURES
Responding to the MPs' suggestions, Senior Minister of State for the Environment and Water Resources Amy Khor said "regulation must be balanced against privacy concerns".
In February, Dr Khor had said in Parliament that smoking within a residence is beyond the jurisdiction of the Government.
"Homes are private spaces; we need to be mindful that not everyone would support the view that the Government should intrude into one’s private space on the issue of smoking," she said on Monday.
"Moreover, if we were to prohibit smoking in one’s own home, it would inevitably entail bringing to bear the necessary investigation and enforcement powers in our homes. We must not take this lightly.
"Such an intrusive regulatory approach to tackling neighbourly issues could ultimately be even more detrimental to community harmony and ownership."
On the US ban on smoking within public housing estates, Dr Khor said it applies only to public housing estates for low-income residents through conditions in the tenancy agreements.
"The context of the US smoking ban is very different and we do need to consider our local circumstances before adapting practices from abroad," she said.
As for the suggestion of setting up a designated smoking area (DSA) in residential estates, Dr Khor said the heartlands are "where our young children and youth spend their time daily".
Furthermore, the fact that housing estates are designed so that HDB blocks are well-connected and dense means it is challenging to find suitable and less visible locations for the DSAs, she said.
"DSAs typically serve as congregation points for smokers," she added. "The daily sight of people gathering to smoke at DSAs at residential areas may give our young the impression that it is normal to smoke. As much as possible, we want to avoid this."
Instead, Dr Khor said the Government has been addressing secondhand smoke in housing estates by prohibiting smoking in common areas, including at the lift lobbies, corridors and staircase landings.
"Ultimately, living in the community is about give and take," she added. "I urge all smokers to be considerate, and to refrain from smoking in a way that would negatively affect others."