Speech by Mr. Louis Ng Kok Kwang, MP for Nee Soon GRC, on the Adjournment Motion: Protection against secondhand smoke in our homes
Some background on this Adjournment Motion:
Sir, I was a smoker for 17 years. I quit because of what I’m going to talk about today. Secondhand smoke. To be very honest, I did not quit for myself. I quit because I knew that secondhand smoke will severely affect the health of my daughter. I didn’t want her to suffer because of my choice to smoke.
The rights of smokers have to be protected. They are adults, old enough to decide whether they want to smoke or not. But we need to make sure that others are not affected by their decision to smoke.
Affected here is not just about not liking the smell of smoke or the discomfort of seeing the smoke. When I say affected, I mean you could die because of secondhand smoke.
No safe level of exposure to secondhand smoke
The World Health Organisation has said that there is no safe level of exposure to secondhand smoke, which can cause coronary heart disease, stroke, and lung cancer.
Those inhaling secondhand smoke are actually exposed to more chemicals than the smokers themselves. Sidestream smoke, the main component in secondhand smoke, is four times more toxic than the smoke that a smoker inhales from the cigarette.
I am especially concerned about how secondhand smoke especially affects the vulnerable among us. According to the Ministry of Health, even the slightest exposure to secondhand smoke can harm babies and young children. For them, even a little is already too much.
Sir, for me the most alarming thing is this: In 2016 alone, 383 people in Singapore died due to secondhand smoke. This is about one person dying every day. We must do something.
The problem of secondhand smoke in residential homes
For years, many residents have reached out to me about their neighbours smoking at balconies and windows. Secondhand smoke enters their homes, and they feel helpless about the health risks facing their families.
Mr. Chia shared about how his baby cries whenever he inhales his neighbour’s secondhand smoke. Mr. Chia feels that he has tried everything. He shut his window panels for most of the day and even installed a fan to blow the smoke away. Yet toxic fumes continue to enter into his home.
Zyen is another helpless resident. Her baby suffers from a lung infection and her neighbour smokes. “He smokes at midnight and the secondhand smoke drifts into our room when we are sleeping soundly.” How much long-term damage will her baby suffer, she wonders.
Another resident, Ms. Lam, lives with her elderly parents. She often wakes up in the middle of the night to close the window so that her parents are not affected by her neighbours’ secondhand smoke. But this also means there is no ventilation in the home for fresh air. They don’t sleep properly, and they are stressed out.
These are just some of the many concerns that residents have shared with me just over the past few weeks. Statistics show that they are not alone.
In the first four months of this year, NEA received 11,400 complaints related to smoking, a 20% increase from last year. This increase was largely due to people smoking in or near homes.
With more people working from home because of COVID-19, the number of cigarette-smoke disputes escalated to the Community Mediation Centre (CMC) has quadrupled from 2 cases a month to 8 cases a month.
Ms. Lim is yet another example. She said that her family started having eye and throat irritation, headaches and nausea during the circuit breaker period due to prolonged exposure to secondhand smoke.
Her neighbour smokes around 7 to 8 times a day, causing her to be “literally basked in a cloud of smoke” every day.
For Ms. Lim and other Singaporeans, secondhand smoke is a silent assassin that poisons them in their own homes, and they have no way to run.
Ineffective solutions that require greater regulatory intervention
Sir, NEA has previously said that secondhand smoke is a “neighbourly” issue. It is true, neighbours should try to solve problems by talking to each other.
And they do try. When it doesn’t work, they seek mediation and support from HDB, NEA, TC, RC, CMC, CDRT and MPs, a whole alphabet soup of authorities. Yet many residents have found these channels ineffective.
One such grievance was shared with me by Ms. Ana. She has suffered the secondhand smoke of a couple living below her unit for the last 10 years. The couple smokes throughout the day. She has applied for CMC mediation, but her neighbours refused to attend the mediation, citing their right to smoke within their own home. Similarly, her MPs have told her that they are “powerless” and “their hands are tied”.
These stories highlight why talk isn’t enough. CMC mediation is voluntary and does not work when neighbours refuse to participate.
Even when MPs want to help, they also cannot seek help from law enforcement because there is no relevant law or regulation to enforce.
A different solution is needed. The “neighbourly” issue of secondhand smoke is not the same as loud karaoke coming from next door or wet laundry dripping from upstairs.
It causes long-term health damage and death. It cannot be solved the same way we solve all these other neighbourly issues.
Proposal to ban smoking near windows and at balconies
Sir, the GPC for Sustainability and the Environment proposes that the Ministry ban residents from smoking near the windows or at the balconies of their HDB flats or private apartments. This would minimise the effect that secondhand smoke has on their neighbours.
Our proposal is not new. The US, as well as several provinces of Canada, does not allow smoking in public housing.
What’s more, our proposal is very similar to what our NEA officers already do. They issue advisories to residents, telling them, “not to smoke near the windows or at the balconies, as a way to minimise the amount of cigarette smoke emitted from their premises”.
All our proposal does is empower our officers to enforce their advisory.
In the past, NEA has also said that restricting people’s actions in HDB flats would be an “intrusive regulatory approach.”
However, our law already intrudes on people’s behavior within their own homes. We ban residents from being nude in their own homes if other people can see it. We ban residents from keeping cats in their own homes because we feel it might affect their neighbours.
Just this March, this House passed my Private Member’s Bill, which bans the feeding of wildlife in any place, including private residences.
So we do draw the line somewhere. Why do we draw the line at nudity, pets and feeding wildlife, but not at secondhand smoke, something that kills hundreds of people in Singapore a year?
Sir, I am sure NEA is not unaware of the impact of secondhand smoke. After all, we do have existing laws that restrict someone from smoking in their car in the no smoking zone along Orchard Road if their windows are down.
So all our GPC asks for is to mirror these restrictions when it comes to homes. Ultimately, our proposal seeks to balance the interests of both groups.
We allow smokers to smoke within their homes as long as they stay away from windows and balconies.
We allow non-smokers to avoid the perils of secondhand smoke. It’s a win-win situation.
One condominium in Singapore, Foresque Residences, has already implemented this restriction on their own. Last year, an overwhelming 84.4% of residents voted in favour of it. We believe many other residents in HDB flats and private apartments would welcome such a restriction in their estates.
It is enforceable
Last but not least, our proposal is enforceable using existing technology already used on the ground.
NEA has been using cameras to catch high-rise litterbugs. These surveillance cameras are focused only on the external facade of the housing units being investigated, to capture the act of littering.
It can even capture someone throwing cigarette butts out of their window.
These cameras have contributed to hugely increasing the number of successful enforcement actions: from 10 in 2011 to over 1,200 in 2018. They are effective.
Separately, NEA has also been using thermal surveillance cameras to catch residents smoking at prohibited areas such as common corridors, lift lobbies and staircase landings. These cameras can “detect objects emitting high heat and capture images of the smoking offence.”
NEA can use all these existing technologies to catch those who smoke near windows and balconies.
We have years of experience fine-tuning their use to minimise privacy intrusion and to maximise successful enforcement. What’s missing now is just the legislation.
If Minister’s reply is that these technologies are not viable, then NEA should implement alternative solutions to facilitate enforcement.
After all, when high-rise littering started killing people, we acted urgently to deploy solutions on the ground. Secondhand smoking near windows and balconies also kills people, and we should act on it with the same urgency. We must not let “hard to enforce” be an obstacle to saving lives.
Finally, I would like to share the experience of Mr. Su, a former smoker. He shared with me that he used to enjoy sitting at his balcony with a coffee and cigarette, and his neighbours would respond by slamming their balcony doors.
Mr. Su quit smoking after becoming a father. But he now finds the tables turned. He is the one slamming the window now – because he has neighbours who are smokers. Belatedly, he realises the impact he had on his neighbours.
We cannot afford to wait for smokers in Singapore to reach this same realisation.
Sir, in conclusion, for the sake of the health and lives of our children, our elderly parents, and other non-smokers, the GPC proposes that this Government introduces a ban on smoking near windows and at the balconies of HDB flats and private apartments.
This is a public health concern we cannot continue to deny and leave unresolved.
Watch the speech and response by MSE here