Parliament: Ban smoking near windows and on balconies in homes, says Louis Ng

Mr Louis Ng noted that 383 people in Singapore died due to secondhand smoke in 2016. PHOTO: HDB

SINGAPORE - A Government Parliamentary Committee (GPC) has 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.

Mr Louis 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 told the House on Monday (Oct 5).

The GPC thus supports a ban on residents in Housing Board flats and private apartments, which Mr Ng proposed in his adjournment motion. The motion allows an MP to speak on a subject for 20 minutes at the end of the sitting.

Mr Ng said residents facing the problem of second-hand smoke have shared their experiences with him.

He cited a young mother whose baby has a lung infection. Her neighbour smokes at midnight, and the second-hand smoke drifts into their room when they are sleeping.

Another resident who lives with her elderly parents wakes up in the middle of the night to close the windows so her parents do not inhale the second-hand smoke. But this means no ventilation while they are sleeping, recounted Mr Ng.

One father told the MP that his baby would cry whenever he inhaled a neighbour's second-hand smoke. Although he shuts the windows for most of the day and has installed a fan to blow the smoke away, the toxic fumes continue to enter his home.

The problem of second-hand smoke has persisted over the years, and has worsened, Mr Ng said.

In the first four months of this year, the National Environment Agency (NEA) received 11,400 complaints related to smoking, a 20 per cent increase from last year, he noted, adding that the increase was largely due to people smoking in or near homes.

With more people working from home because of the coronavirus pandemic, the number of cigarette-smoke disputes escalated to the Community Mediation Centre has quadrupled from two cases a month to eight cases a month, he said.

Many have tried approaching the authorities for help and seeking mediation, but found such channels ineffective, he noted.

"Even when MPs want to help, they cannot seek help from law enforcement because there is no relevant law or regulation to enforce," said Mr Ng.

The GPC's proposed ban will empower NEA officers to enforce what is currently an advisory for residents not to smoke near windows and on balconies, he added.

He made the point that while this might be seen as an intrusive regulatory approach, there are already laws in place curbing people's behaviour at home, like the law against nudity at home if others can see it.

In response, Senior Minister of State for Sustainability and the Environment Amy Khor said such legislation would be "highly intrusive" and there would be significant practical challenges in enforcement.

"This will exacerbate existing concerns about privacy and infringing the owner's rights to his or her own private space," she said.

Instead, the ministry will adopt a three-pronged approach - first, work to entrench new social norms and greater social responsibility.

Second, examine more ways to facilitate productive conversations between neighbours when dealing with difficult situations and lastly, work with agencies to study how such disputes can be better addressed by the inter-agency community dispute management framework as well as review the community mediation process.

She added that of the 11,400 smoking complaints received in the first four months of 2020, 58 per cent (6,630) were in residential estates.

Of these cases, 95 per cent (6,310) were related to smoking in common areas such as staircases, corridors and void decks.

Only 5 per cent (320) of the residential cases involved smoking in homes, said Dr Khor.

The NEA has thus prioritised surveillance in common areas, and deployed thermal cameras at smoking hot spots.

In the first half of 2020, NEA took 2,400 enforcement actions in these areas - a 37 per cent increase compared to the same period last year, she said.

Join ST's WhatsApp Channel and get the latest news and must-reads.