Louis Ng vs Amy Khor: MPs debate proposed ban on smoking near windows of HDB flats

Smoking a cigarette with smoke around and a blurred background
The Government Parliamentary Committee for Sustainability and the Environment called for a ban on smoking near the windows and balconies of HDB flats and private apartments. (PHOTO: Getty Images)

SINGAPORE — While the government is interested in mitigating the public health impact of secondhand smoke, enforcing a proposed ban on smoking in homes would be highly intrusive and raise privacy issues, said Minister of State for Sustainability and the Environment Amy Khor on Monday (5 October).

Her explanation came in response to Nee Soon GRC MP Louis Ng’s adjournment motion, during which he said the Government Parliamentary Committee (GPC) for Sustainability and the Environment has called for a ban on smoking near the windows and balconies of HDB flats and private apartments.

The neighbourly issue of secondhand smoke is not the same as loud karaoke coming from next door or wet laundry dripping from upstairs as it causes long-term health damage and death, said Ng, who heads the GPC. “It cannot be solved the same way we solve all these other neighbourly disputes.”

Voicing his concerns about how secondhand smoke “especially affects the vulnerable among us”, he noted that 383 people in Singapore died in 2016 due to secondhand smoke.

Ng said the GPC’s proposed ban was enforceable through “existing technology”, as seen in the surveillance cameras used to detect high-rise littering and the thermal surveillance cameras used to catch HDB residents smoking in prohibited areas, such as common corridors.

‘Highly intrusive’

In response to Ng, Khor said that her ministry was equally concerned about secondhand smoke and is just as keen to resolve the issue – just not through the means Ng proposed.

“Unfortunately, besides the fact that such legislation could be highly intrusive. There are significant practical challenges in enforcement that limit effectiveness,” said Khor.

First, it would be difficult to gather evidence of a smoking offence as the culprit will need to be captured smoking or holding a lit cigarette, in order for enforcement to take place.

“(A) smoker can easily hide behind the pillar frosted glass windows or curtains to avoid detection by the camera. Overall, this may entail the deployment of significant resources, without achieving effective outcomes,” she added.

Second, it would be difficult to find a vantage point from which to place cameras to capture smokers in the act without being excessively intrusive. Khor noted that this is unlike the case for cameras set up to catch high-rise litterbugs as these are placed at ground level some distance away from HDB blocks and only capture a building’s facade.

“Finally, this will exacerbate existing concerns about privacy and infringe upon the (home) owners’ rights to his or her own private space,” said Khor.

“We must work hard to address the issue of secondhand smoke from homes, but legislation against smoking at windows or balconies may not be that silver bullet,” she added.

Khor said that out of 11,400 smoking complaints received in the first four months of this year, 58 per cent (6,630) were from people living in residential estates.

While there has been a rise in the number of residential smoking-related complaints due to more people working from home during the COVID-19 pandemic, Khor said that only 320 cases involved smoking in homes.

Khor said that the government will instead pursue a three-pronged approach in tackling the issue. This would involve working to engender greater social responsibility and instil in residents a consideration for the health and well-being of others, including their neighbours.

She said her ministry will work with other agencies – such as the Health Promotion Board and Ministry of National Development – to explore effective ways of achieving this goal through, for instance, targeted messages on key platforms, including social media channels.

“Second, we will examine more ways to facilitate productive conversations between neighbours to deal with difficult situations, before they escalate into intractable disputes,” said Khor.

Thirdly, her ministry will study how such disputes over secondhand smoke can be better addressed by the interagency community dispute management framework although she noted that she hoped most cases would not have to end up in community mediation.

“The best way to protect against secondhand smoke is for family members and neighbours to help smokers cut down and quit smoking. And if they have to smoke, not to light up at home, and instead smoke at non-prohibited areas,” said Khor.

Replying to Khor’s explanation, Ng said “the problem is that we are viewing this as a neighbourly dispute issue.

“And I think if we view this as a public health crisis and the policy direction, then the policy outcome might be completely different,” he added.

To this point, Khor said that the current legislation in place prohibiting smoking at 32,000 places was, in fact, aimed at reducing the impact of secondhand smoke and “making it very difficult for smokers to smoke”. She also reiterated that the smoking prevalence rate as of last year was down to 10.6 per cent.

“(We’re) going to expand the smoking prohibited areas to even more places. In fact, somebody said, ‘You know, actually, our smoking prohibition in common areas in residential estate is really right up to the doorstep of your home already,’” said Khor.

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