SINGAPORE: Member of Parliament (MP) Louis Ng called for a ban on residents smoking near windows or at the balconies of HDB flats and private apartments, as he raised an adjournment motion on Monday (Oct 5) on protection against secondhand smoke in the home.
Calling secondhand smoke a “public health concern” that Singapore cannot continue to leave unresolved, Mr Ng and the Government Parliamentary Committee (GPC) for Sustainability and the Environment suggested the use of cameras to identify those who smoke at their windows and balconies.
However, Senior Minister of State for Sustainability and the Environment Amy Khor noted that such legislation could infringe on residents' privacy.
There is also a number of "significant practical challenges" that curtail the effectiveness of possible enforcement, she added.
"We are just as keen to resolve this issue and have carefully studied these suggestions. Unfortunately, besides the fact that such legislation could be highly intrusive, there are significant practical challenges in enforcement that limit effectiveness," said Dr Khor in her reply to Mr Ng.
In his adjournment motion, the Nee Soon GRC MP noted that people who inhale secondhand smoke are exposed to more chemicals than the smokers themselves.
"Sidestream smoke, the main component in secondhand smoke, is four times more toxic than the smoke that a smoker inhales from the cigarette. I am especially concerned about how secondhand smoke especially affects the vulnerable among us," he added.
Citing statistics, Mr Ng also noted that in 2016 alone, 383 people in Singapore died due to the effects of secondhand smoke.
"For years, many residents have reached out to me about their neighbours smoking at balconies and at windows," he added. "Secondhand smoke enters their homes, and they feel helpless about the health risks facing their families."
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Mr Ng also noted that there has been an increase in the number of smoking-related complaints that the National Environment Agency (NEA) had received in the first four months of this year - 11,400 - which is a 20 per cent increase from last year.
A 'NEIGHBOURLY ISSUE'?
Pointing out that many residents have found efforts at mediation futile, Mr Ng said a "different solution" was required.
"NEA has previously said that secondhand smoke is a 'neighbourly' issue. It is true, neighbours should try to solve problems by talking to each other. And they do try. When it doesn’t work, they seek mediation and support from HDB, NEA, TC, RC, CMC, CDRT, and MPs - a whole alphabet soup of authorities. Yet many residents have found these channels ineffective," he said.
"Even when MPs want to help, they cannot seek help from law enforcement because there is no relevant law or regulation to enforce. A different solution is needed ... It cannot be solved the same way we solve all these other neighbourly issues."
The proposed ban is "very similar" to what NEA officers already do, said Mr Ng, adding that it would "empower" them to enforce the advisories they issue.
"What’s more, our proposal is very similar to what our NEA officers already do. They issue advisories to residents, telling them, 'not to smoke near the windows or at the balconies, as a way to minimise the amount of cigarette smoke emitted from their premises'," explained Mr Ng.
This proposal is enforceable using existing technologies already used on the ground, he added.
"NEA has been using cameras to catch high-rise litterbugs. These surveillance cameras are focused only on the external facade of the housing units being investigated to capture the act of littering. It can even capture someone throwing cigarette butts out of their windows," he said.
Mr Ng also gave the example of the use of thermal surveillance cameras used to catch residents smoking at prohibited areas such as common corridors.
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"We have years of experience fine-tuning their use and to minimise privacy intrusion and to maximise successful enforcement. What is missing now, is just the legislation," he said.
ENFORCEMENT WOULD BE 'CHALLENGING'
However, Dr Khor said that enforcement would be challenging as capturing evidence of the smoking offence is not "straightforward".
"Smelling the tobacco smoke is not sufficient as cameras must capture the smokers smoking or holding a lighted cigarette as evidence for enforcement. However, a smoker can easily hide behind a pillar, frosted glass, windows or curtains to avoid detection by the cameras," said Dr Khor.
"Overall this may entail deployment of significant resources without achieving effective outcomes."
In addition, the camera must also be placed at "suitable vantage points" to capture the act of one smoking at the window or balcony, said Dr Khor.
"For towering flats, finding the right vantage point in common areas to deploy the camera is not always possible," she said. "Directly aiming cameras into homes is highly intrusive unlike surveillance for high-rise littering where the camera is trained at the building facade and can be placed at ground level some distance away."
These solutions will also "exacerbate" existing concerns about privacy and infringe the owners' rights to his or her own private space, added Dr Khor.
"We must work hard to address the difficult issue of secondhand smoke from homes but legislation against smoking at windows or balconies may not be that silver bullet," she told the House.
Instead, NEA will pursue a "three-pronged approach", explained Dr Khor.
This includes working harder to "engender greater social responsibility" among Singaporeans, examining more ways to facilitate "productive" conversations between neighbours, as well as working with agencies to study how disputes can be better addressed by the inter-agency community dispute management framework.
"Ultimately, mitigating the impact of secondhand smoke requires everyone to play their part," said Dr Khor.
"Smokers must exercise consideration for the health of their family and neighbours and as a community, we must help one another build the right social norms for a healthy and gracious society."