MP Louis Ng makes another pitch for smoking at windows and balconies of homes to be made illegal
SINGAPORE: Smoking at windows and balconies at home should be made illegal, said Member of Parliament Louis Ng (PAP-Nee Soon) on Monday (Sep 13) as he questioned why an existing law is not being used to tackle the issue of secondhand smoke from neighbours.
Speaking in his adjournment motion on using deterrence to tackle secondhand smoke in homes, Mr Ng noted that Section 43 of the Environmental Public Health Act (EPHA) empowers the National Environment Agency (NEA) to take necessary steps to “remove nuisances of a public nature”.
Such nuisances include “the issue of any fumes, vapours, gases, heat, radiation or smells in any premises which is a nuisance or injurious or dangerous to health”.
“That sure sounds like secondhand smoke,” said Mr Ng. “Why is the Government not using this law to take a clear stance that smoking near windows and at balconies is illegal?”
Responding to Mr Ng after his speech, Senior Minister of State for Sustainability and the Environment Amy Khor said that the named sections in the Act cannot be used to prohibit smoking at windows and balconies.
“This part of the EPHA was enacted in the context of 1960s Singapore to provide for quick mitigating action to arrest public nuisances from specific industrial activities. It is not the purpose of the EPHA to deal with smoking prohibition," she explained.
Dr Khor added that the Act addresses nuisances affecting the public at large, and not private nuisances affecting a person’s use or enjoyment of his property.
“To achieve deterrence, not only do we need the appropriate law, we also need effective enforcement. Unfortunately, the National Environment Agency's (NEA) assessment is that this is not achievable with current enforcement modalities and technology,” she said.
This is the second adjournment motion that Mr Ng has filed on secondhand smoke in homes. In October last year, he also called for a ban on residents smoking near windows or balconies.
In his speech on Monday, Mr Ng said that about one person in Singapore dies every day due to secondhand smoke, based on 383 deaths reported in 2016, with the number “growing each year”.
According to him, this is five times the number of people who have died in motor accidents, seven times the number who have died from the coronavirus and 12 times the number who died from workplace injuries.
“Unlike these other causes of death, there is no preventive measure you can take against secondhand smoke at home,” he said.
Mr Ng went on to share stories from several residents of Housing Board flats and condominiums who tried unsuccessfully to get their neighbours to stop smoking.
Citing studies, he added that exposure to secondhand smoke makes children more likely to suffer from attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), along with a host of respiratory illnesses.
THREE-TIER APPROACH TO DETERRENCE
Mr Ng suggested a three-tier approach to deterrence, calling it “a power that we have not sufficiently drawn on”.
First, the Government should make it illegal to smoke at windows and balconies, he said.
"To be clear, the Government Parliamentary Committee for Sustainability and the Environment is not calling for smoking at home to be illegal," he explained.
"We know that it will be almost impossible to enforce a ban on smoking at home ... Sir, we are calling for the Government to make clear that smoking at windows and balconies is illegal."
By using the Environmental Public Health Act, the Government can reduce the problem of secondhand smoke in homes, as “Singaporeans are terrified of breaking the law”, he said.
"It would also help neighbours mediate, as the offenders can no longer say that their behaviour is perfectly legal," he told the House, adding that it would also "give more bite" to NEA officers.
The second tier is awareness, Mr Ng said, pointing out that NEA could use the LCD screens at HDB lobbies for such campaigns.
“These screens are near to where offences happen and are most likely to have a significant impact,” said Mr Ng.
The last tier is to enforce the law.
He noted Dr Khor’s comments in October when she said that in order for enforcement to be done, cameras must capture the smoker in the act. She pointed out that as smokers can hide behind barriers to avoid detection, "this may entail deployment of significant resources without achieving effective outcomes".
Mr Ng argued that smokers are unlikely to hide behind pillars, windows or curtains to smoke.
"As a former smoker, I can tell you that smokers smoke at open windows and balconies precisely to get the smoke out of their homes; it would defeat the purpose to hide behind some cover," he said.
"If they do hide like how SMS (senior minister of state) Amy describes, then it would be a good thing, not a bad thing, because it would help contain most of the secondhand smoke within their home."
On the effectiveness of camera surveillance, he said it would be the absolute last resort, adding that the “vast majority” would comply once they are aware that smoking near windows and balconies is illegal.
“For a small number of cases where smokers continue to smoke at windows and balconies, then enforcement kicks in,” he said.
When smokers repeat their offences despite advisories or nuisance orders, Mr Ng suggested collecting evidence from complainants. NEA could also conduct stakeouts, he said. For the “small number of cases” where surveillance cameras need to be used, the Government can maintain privacy by pointing it at the facade of the building, he added.
SMOKERS WILL FIND WAYS TO AVOID BEING CAUGHT
Prohibiting smoking at windows and balconies will only ensure that smokers will find ways to avoid being caught, said Dr Khor.
“They could smoke in balcony corners, or in toilets with windows or ventilation fans, which some already do. Smoke will inevitably seep out and can still travel to neighbouring units,” she said, adding that NEA cannot prosecute “based solely on complaints of smoke, or smell or smoke wafting from neighbouring units”.
Complainants are often unable to “accurately identify” the source of the smoke, she said. As such, each case will require “extensive manpower and resources to investigate with no guarantee of successful enforcement”.
Conducting investigations would require “significant social trade-offs”, said Dr Khor, as cameras would have to be of sufficient resolution and trained directly into the units. This could potentially include innocent neighbours, she added.
Dr Khor noted that NEA has stepped up its enforcement actions. In 2020, it issued 11,000 tickets for smoking in prohibited areas in common HDB areas, compared to 7,100 in 2019.
Most smokers “cooperate”, she added, noting that less than 10 per cent of feedback the ministry receives recur within a year.
Dr Khor also said that other jurisdictions that have attempted regulation have done so on a “very selective basis” and “have not experienced clear success”.
TARGETS TO BRING DOWN SMOKING
Standing in support of the motion, MP Poh Li San (PAP-Sembawang) suggested that the Government continue to have targets to bring down the number of smokers over the next five to 10 years.
She noted that a recent announcement in July showed that Singapore has achieved a smoking rate of 10.1 per cent, just “slightly shy” of the 10 per cent by 2020 target that Singapore set in 2018.
“It would be good if we could introduce more aggressive campaigns to help those who sincerely wish to stop smoking, and also to introduce a convincing message on the dangers of smoking to our children at an early age,” she said.
In response, Dr Khor said that Singapore has expanded smoking prohibition “extensively” to more than 32,000 places.
“We are now looking into extending the smoking prohibition to even more places,” she said.
“Concerted efforts” have driven Singapore’s smoking rate down to 10.1 per cent in 2020, half the global average of 20 per cent.