Clear air for all, even in coffee shops

Banning smoking corners in kopitiam will make the dining spots a better place for all users

The smoke is clearing.

Smoking will be prohibited in all public areas along Orchard Road from July 1 next year, save for a few designated areas.

The National Environment Agency (NEA) is also no longer allowing new smoking corners to be set up at food establishments islandwide.

Only those with existing smoking corners will get to keep them, as long as they renew their food shop licences.

This is chokingly bad news in my book - it may take a long time before I can head to a neighbourhood kopitiam and enjoy a totally smoke-free experience.

Why would coffee-shop operators not renew their food shop licences - and broaden their money-making potential by catering to both smoking and non-smoking customers?

ST ILLUSTRATION: ADAM LEE

It is a mystery why the authorities cannot just outlaw the puffing corners, given the larger backdrop of the country coming down hard on smoking - including plans to raise the minimum age for smokers to 21 from 18 - and the existence of an already lengthy list of places where lighting up is illegal.

It has been proven that secondary smoke is as lethal as the act of smoking and has been linked to lung cancer and a higher risk of heart disease.

Almost four years ago, in October 2013, I had called for the stubbing out of smoking corners in a Sunday Times column.

At the time, there was an expansion of no-smoking zones in a drive that had started way back in 1970.

The prohibition started in buses and cinemas before it was extended to fast-food outlets (1988), air-conditioned workplaces (1994) and air-conditioned shops (1997).

In 2013, the ban extended to overhead pedestrian bridges, areas around bus stops and common areas in residential buildings such as void decks, corridors and staircases.

But coffee shops - arguably the "community centre" in most neighbourhoods and certainly drawing more human traffic than, say, parks and overhead bridges on a daily basis - were exempted, with smoking corners allowed in 2006.

They can occupy up to 20 per cent of the outdoor space.

Those who frequent coffee shops will also know of other drawbacks apart from the secondary smoke - the ash-strewn floors and the lack of seating at peak hours, with many reluctant to opt for the smoking zone even if there are empty seats there.

Many people must also have seen smokers who occupy tables nearest to the smoking corner when there is a shortage of seats and still light up, with no one daring to raise an objection, not even the coffee-shop's employees.

On social media, there are calls for NEA to do spot-checks and fine those who breach the rules, including taking the coffee-shop operator to task for not policing customers' behaviour.

The corners also draw beer drinkers who can camp out for a considerable time, with newspaper reports of fights that occasionally break out.

The coffee shop is frequented by every demographic, including families with young kids and older members.

They all deserve a place where they can enjoy a meal without any inconvenience or health risks.

What goes on in the coffee shop affects non-customers too. After my column ran, a reader said the smoking corner was sited close to the lift lobby of his Housing Board block, so he had to detour to another lobby to take the lift to avoid the secondary smoke.

But why can't the coffee-shop operators themselves do the right social thing and remove the smoking corners?

Can coffee-shop associations ask their members to phase out such facilities?

They are often quick to defend their members raising the prices of, say, kopi-o, claiming hikes in operating costs that could no longer be absorbed.

Now, there is a chance for them to show they can also be outstanding pillars of the community and help foster a better living environment.

Does doing away with smoking corners really hurt business, which is presumably why these corners exist?

But if there is no other place where smokers can take their business to, I do not see how they can choose to stay away.

The kopitiam is still an affordable place for drinks and meals and many operate around the clock too.

The move to remove smoking corners voluntarily may also prompt more people to dine out more often at the kopitiam, if they know that it will be a far more pleasant experience.

Already, coffee shops do not sell beer after 10.30pm. Drinking is not allowed after midnight and the TV volume must be muted.

These are mandated rules, but it is also in the interest of coffee-shop operators to voluntarily take the no-smoking step to keep up with the changing business environment too. Food delivery apps allow people to escape the secondary smoke and eat at home.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on August 20, 2017, with the headline 'Clear air for all, even in coffee shops'. Print Edition | Subscribe