On My Mind

Smokers get their unmasked breaks, unlike most of us

ST ILLUSTRATION: CEL GULAPA

Smokers seem sprinkled with fairy dust made from the ashes of non-smokers' dreams about good health; they are allowed to puff cigarettes at home even though the smoke harms neighbours. They can also be outdoors with their masks off to puff away.

We non-smokers, having no special hobbies which involve inhaling smoke, cannot pull our masks down for the equivalent... oh, let's call them "breath breaks".

We keep masks on while they don't

We have to remain masked outside our homes lest we spread possible virus-laden droplets.

Yet, smokers can blow out air laced with arsenic, benzene, formaldehyde and many more carcinogens - never mind possible coronavirus-laden droplets.

Too bad, asthmatic children and grannies hurrying through the noxious haze.

Too bad, too, for people standing or walking 10m from smokers, never mind the 5m rule. Smoking is prohibited within a 5m radius of bus stops.

Sorry, non-smokers, breathing fresh air is overrated. It is not a special hobby or an essential activity. It is not up there with eating or drinking, jogging, biking or exercising strenuously when masks need not be worn.

And, of course, there are also non-smokers who are seen ambling, standing or sitting with their masks off - until they spot a safe distancing ambassador. But for months and months, the rest of us have quietly remained masked for the greater good.

And, through it all, the smokers get to stand there wreathed in smoke, with their masks off and mouths open, exhaling with exquisite satisfaction.

We keep windows shut while they don't

Thankfully, some people with some power opened their mouths to speak up for us.

Last month, a Government Parliamentary Committee (GPC) called for a ban on residents smoking near windows or on the balconies of their homes to minimise the effects of second-hand smoke on neighbours.

Member of Parliament Louis Ng said the proposed ban will empower National Environment Agency officers to enforce what is currently an advisory for residents not to smoke near windows and on balconies.

The authorities responded, saying that such legislation would be "highly intrusive", "exacerbate existing concerns about privacy and infringing the owner's rights to his or her own private space", and that there would be significant practical challenges in enforcement.

Mr Ng, who chairs the GPC for Sustainability and the Environment, noted that 383 people in Singapore died due to second-hand smoke in 2016.

"That is about one person dying every day. We must do something," he said in Parliament then.

He recounted how one resident, who lives with her elderly parents, would wake up in the middle of the night to close the windows, so her parents did not inhale second-hand smoke. But this meant no ventilation while they were sleeping.

Come. Add your stories on the bonfire, so someone can see our smoke signal for help.

Here's mine:

In the morning, a resident kindly gives my neighbourhood a loud warning that he is on the verge of smoking by retching and spitting to clear his lungs out. There's nothing wrong with being noisily unwell, of course. But he promptly refills his lungs with phlegm by smoking and coughing generously on the balcony.

Then he retches down the sink again.

While there's nothing wrong with him being noisily unwell, the worry is that it could be us second-hand smoke victims retching into the sink one day.

Throughout the day, he is less generous with the warnings of when he wishes to smoke. It could be a lunch smoke. Mid-afternoon or after-dinner smoke? Supper surprise smoke. After-midnight smoke.

In a world where we are already contending with fumes from vehicles, the occasional dreadful transboundary haze and other pollutants in the air, we could really do without this domestic haze called second-hand smoke.

Leave the windows open at your own risk.

We keep mouths shut as there's no law

The authorities said that of the 11,400 smoking complaints received in the first four months of 2020, 58 per cent were in residential estates, and of these, only 5 per cent involved smoking in homes.

This may not be an accurate picture of the situation, speculated Straits Times Forum writer Liu I-Chun, who wrote: "People are not reporting smoking in homes simply because it is not against the law, and the relevant authorities have repeatedly told them so. Therefore, most are of the view that it is pointless to complain, although they remain distraught."

Put that in your pipe and smoke it.

Do whatever you want in the privacy of your own home, but it's not okay to let, for example, dirty water flow from your window or balcony into neighbours' homes. But somehow, it's okay for dirty air to flow from smokers' flats into neighbours' homes.

Significant practical challenges in enforcement? True.

We keep trying

Consider a two-tier pricing system for the payment of conservancy and other fees, Nanyang Technological University's Professor Euston Quah suggested in a Straits Times commentary.

"The housing management, or Housing Board, may consider requiring a household declaration of whether there are smokers. That information is stored and households with smokers will be required to pay a higher conservancy and fee charge," he wrote recently.

Significant practical challenges in enforcement? True again.

Consider special airtight rooms or huts with ventilation systems that smokers must use whether inside or outside of homes for a puff.

We already have designated open-air areas for smoking, which are part of the many smoking-reduction measures the authorities have put in place over many years. But do markings on the ground or walls with gaps confine the smoke?

If you think airtight rooms are cruel, then look at non-smokers working and sleeping in such rooms at home to keep the smoke out.

If you think airtight rooms are odd, then look, for example, at loos. Grown-ups and potty-trained children can't just pee anywhere. They have to hold it in until they get to special enclosed rooms with a system of pipes - loos - to relieve themselves.

Think of smoking in the same way: Waste products are about to come out of the body, so smokers should hold off on their special hobby until they get to a place that can handle their gaseous body waste. Discharge it without harming the public.

Back in the day, humans used to pee and poop wherever they felt the urge. Then we evolved for the greater good.