Speech by Mr. Louis Ng Kok Kwang, MP for Nee Soon GRC, on the Adjournment Motion on Using deterrence to tackle secondhand smoke in homes
Sir, last year, we delivered an adjournment motion in this House, seeking increased protections against secondhand smoke in our homes. The answer was a no.
Today, I wish that I could report the problem has been solved, that actually nothing needs to be done. But this is not the case. In fact, the problem has likely worsened. As SMS Sim Ann said recently “Across many communities… our sense is that residential smoking has risen”.
Since our motion, many Singaporeans have spoken up. On social media, in news media and in private messages, they report feeling tortured and trapped by their neighbours’ secondhand smoke.
I will share the stories of these Singaporeans. I will also share that a law already exists that makes smoking near windows and at balconies illegal. We don’t need a new law.
And I will emphasise the power of deterrence, not just enforcement of this current law against smoking near windows and at balconies but deterrence, a power that we have not sufficiently drawn on.
Health impact in statistical context
First, let me provide a reminder to this house on how deadly secondhand smoke is. About one person in Singapore dies every day due to secondhand smoke. This is based on the 383 deaths in 2016 and the number of deaths has been growing each year.
Let’s put this in context. This is about:
5 times the number of people who have died in motor accidents;
7 times the number of people who have died from the coronavirus; and
12 times the number of people who have died from workplace injuries.
Let me be clear. Deaths from motor accidents, the coronavirus and workplace injuries are all serious and all need our attention. Indeed, I have regularly spoken up on these very issues in this House.
My point is secondhand smoke needs our urgent attention too.
Unlike these other causes of death, there is no preventive measure you can take against secondhand smoke at home.
You can’t, for example, take a vaccine.
You can install an air purifier, but as MOH has said, it doesn’t work.
You can shut your windows, but as many residents know, it doesn’t work.
You can talk to your neighbours but again as many residents know, more often than not, it doesn’t work.
One resident, Kim, shared with me about how she begged her neighbour, with her baby in her hands, about how his secondhand smoke was affecting the child. It didn’t work.
You can move house like another resident, Jennifer, did. She has moved house three times in the past six years and has been unlucky enough to suffer from her neighbours’ secondhand smoke every time. She recently wrote to me at 1.30 am, saying, “Our neighbour is smoking and we are unable to sleep. We are literally dying in our sleep every day”.
And honestly, how many people can afford to move house repeatedly to avoid the dangers of secondhand smoke? Is this fair for them?
Condo residents don’t have it any better. MCSTs have no power to fine their residents, regardless of their bylaws. A condo resident, NC, spoke to her neighbour, who smokes throughout the day at her balcony, and was told that what she was doing was legal despite the condo bylaw prohibiting smoking at the balcony. NC is worried about the health of her two young children.
Health impact for children
So let’s focus on how this affects our children. We all become sick from secondhand smoke, but the worst is saved for our children.
In a recent study published just a few months ago, researchers concluded that children exposed to secondhand smoke from pregnancy to childhood were more likely to suffer from ADHD symptoms.
And it’s not just ADHD. Secondhand smoke causes severe respiratory infections, triggers more frequent and more severe asthma attacks, cough, wheezing, breathlessness, ear infections and a whole slew of other illnesses among young children.
Sir, these medical scenarios are not hypothetical. Parents write letters to me, and they describe their lived experiences in these exact words. Their letters sometimes read like horror stories – they know something is killing their children, but they feel helpless to do anything about it.
Take Ying Ying, a young mother with one child and another on the way. Her neighbour’s smoking has plagued her family for four years. It caused her firstborn to suffer from bronchitis. She is now terrified that her next child will suffer the same. To quote her: “Every time we want to open the windows for fresh air, we hesitate. Because we never know how much shorter our breath will become”.
Take another parent, Peter. His elder son is taking PSLE this year and studies at home while inhaling his neighbour’s secondhand smoke. His younger son has been coughing and sick as a result of the secondhand smoke. “It does not make sense to suffer like that,” Peter says.
And it is not just children, Kelvin shared with me about how he has a family member who has cancer and they are worried how the constant exposure to secondhand smoke will be bad for her already failing health. As he put it, “We are losing the freedom for fresh air”.
We have always taken pride in being a safe nation. But for many, home is no longer a safe place. It is the place where their neighbours cause them to suffer asthma attacks, bronchitis, breathlessness, respiratory infections, and they cannot do anything about it.
Make it clear that smoking near windows and doors is illegal
Sir, this government acknowledges that this is a health concern. The Health Promotion Board states, “You wouldn’t put your child in danger by letting him play with fire. So why risk your child’s heath by exposing him or her to secondhand smoke?”
I’m sure many parents agree with that, so like me, they choose not to smoke. But they have no choice when it comes to someone else’s secondhand smoke. They need the government to step in.
Here, we should remember that one of the most powerful forces in Singapore is deterrence. Indeed, it is fair to say deterrence is at the cornerstone of our law and order. It explains why we have such low crime rates.
But we know that deterrence does not happen out of thin air. It is a three-tier approach, and you need to build it starting from the bottom.
At the first tier, you must make clear that the bad behaviour is illegal. To be clear, the GPC for Sustainability and the Environment is not calling for smoking at home to be illegal.
We know that it will be almost impossible to enforce a ban on smoking at home and there will be no deterrent effect of such a law as people won’t be able to see people smoking inside their home.
Sir, we are calling for the government to make clear that smoking at windows and balconies is illegal.
To be clear Sir, a law does already exist. Section 43 of the Environmental Public Health Act empowers NEA to take any step necessary to remove nuisances of a public nature.
These nuisances, as defined in Section 44, include “the issue of any fumes, vapours, gases, heat, radiation or smells in any premises which is a nuisance or injurious or dangerous to health.”
That sure sounds like secondhand smoke. Why is the government not using this law to take a clear stance that smoking near windows and at balconies is illegal?
Even without doing anything else, it would already reduce the problem of secondhand smoke in homes.
I’m sure SMS Amy would agree with me that Singapore is generally a nation of law abiders. Singaporeans are terrified of breaking the law.
It would also help neighbours mediate, as the offenders can no longer say that their behaviour is perfectly legal.
It would help give more bite to NEA officers, who already give advisories to those smoking near windows and at balconies. Their words would have more impact if backed by the law.
Section 43 can already be used to stop smoking near windows and at balconies. In this unprecedented period of home-based learning and work-from-home, this needs be done urgently.
Remind people of the law
The second tier for deterrence is awareness.
Our authorities have historically been very good at this. We have all seen signs by the Police warning against scams, theft and molestation.
Again, we can make it clear that smoking near windows and at balconies is illegal under current laws.
We can then leverage the new LCD screens at HDB lobbies to start an awareness campaign. These screens are near to where the offences happen and are most likely to have a significant impact.
Singaporeans respond when they know something is illegal.
Enforce the law smartly
The third tier for deterrence is enforcement. This is the point SMS Amy took issue with when we raised our motion last year. To quote her:
“Cameras must capture the smokers smoking or holding a lighted cigarette as evidence for enforcement. However, a smoker can easily hide behind a pillar, frosted glass, windows or curtains to avoid detection by the cameras. Overall this may entail deployment of significant resources without achieving effective outcomes.”
Let me first clarify that a smoker is unlikely to hide behind pillars, windows or curtains to smoke. As a former smoker, I can tell you that smokers smoke at open windows and balconies precisely to get the smoke out of their homes; it would defeat the purpose to hide behind some cover.
If they do hide like how SMS Amy describes, then it would be a good thing, not a bad thing, because it would help contain most of the secondhand smoke within their home.
SMS Amy’s concern is also about the cost and effectiveness of camera surveillance. But camera surveillance is just one of many options. It is the last last last resort.
Let me stress again that once people are aware that smoking near windows and at balconies is illegal, the vast majority of people will comply with it.
I cannot imagine a person continuing to smoke at their window, committing an offence right in front of their neighbours in the nearby block. I’m sure some neighbours will take photos of this and report the smoker or put it on social media. Deterrence again will kick in before the need for enforcement.
For a small number of cases where smokers continue to smoke at windows and balconies, then enforcement kicks in.
We start with advisories and then nuisance orders under the Environmental Public Health Act. As I mentioned earlier, NEA officers already issue advisories today, but they are not backed by the threat of harsher penalties, so they accomplish little. Used in conjunction with a law, however, such low-effort enforcement may be sufficient to end bad behaviour in most cases.
I have no doubt that majority of people will comply once they realise that the penalty for not complying with nuisance orders under the Environmental Public Health Act. is a fine not exceeding $10,000 for first time offenders and in the case of a second or subsequent conviction, to a fine not exceeding $20,000 or to imprisonment for a term not exceeding 3 months or to both.
There will be cases where the culprit repeats their offences despite the advisories or nuisance order and stronger enforcement is needed.
To collect further evidence, we can first draw on evidence from complainants. Complainants are often very capable of collecting evidence on their own. Indeed, we already ask residents to provide evidence of their neighbours smoking, such as photos or videos, when they bring a case to the Community Disputes Resolution Tribunal.
Second, NEA can conduct stakeouts. It already does this for high-rise litterbugs and bird feeders. Both of these problems kill far less people than secondhand smoke. Surely we can justify reallocating some resources.
Finally, surveillance cameras remain a viable last, last, last resort for a very small number of cases.
This is the reality – we are not asking for surveillance cameras to be placed everywhere,throughout Singapore. This is not needed at all.
For the small number of cases where we need to deploy a surveillance camera, we can minimise concerns of privacy by doing what we already do – point it at the facade of the building.
These cameras are used by the authorities today to catch high-rise litterbugs. But they will actually work just as effectively for catching those smoking at windows and balconies.
Let me show you some photos from these cameras. These photos show how the cameras can already capture someone smoking at their windows without invading the privacy of the smoker and their neighbours.
I will share these photos on my social media pages so everyone can see for themselves.
The good news also is that NEA now has improved technology. NEA has collaborated with GovTech on Project Balefire, which aims to detect smoking activities using video analytics.
This has help to reduce the need for enforcement officers.
Sir, there is no law where we have successful enforcement one hundred per cent of the time. But in the case of smoking near windows or at balconies, the chances of a successful enforcement are much higher as compared to high-rise littering.
If we can catch someone throwing litter from their window in a fleeting moment, action that takes a couple of seconds. Then surely, we can catch someone smoking at the window for a few minutes at a time repeatedly throughout the day. Think about it.
The chances of catching someone smoking at the window are also infinitely higher than the odds of catching them right inside their own homes naked. If the police are able to enforce the law against being naked at home, then surely NEA can enforce the current law against smoking at windows and balconies.
Sir, we should really be clear about one thing: universal enforcement is not necessary.
This should be common sense. There is no law where we enforce one hundred percent of the time. We obviously don’t have speeding cameras on every single road. In the same way, we won’t need to install surveillance cameras at every housing estate.
Instead, what we need to do is enforce some cases and then publicise them. This will make clear that the authorities can and will take action. This is what we already do with so many public-health hazards where universal enforcement is not possible: racing on roads, cycling on highways, PMDs on pavements, being naked in your own home, feeding of birds and so on.
We clean up a few bad eggs, we announce it to all Singaporeans, and we make a point.
Sir, to conclude, and to be absolutely clear, a law does already exist. Section 43 of the Environmental Public Health Act can already be used to penalise smoking near windows and at balconies and deterrence rather than enforcement is the key.
In this COVID pandemic, we have tried so hard to keep people safe. This has meant keeping them at home for work and studies.
But this has also meant many are now more exposed to the silent pandemic of secondhand smoke at home.
People need to feel safe in their homes again. Deterrence is a power we have not used enough. Let’s use it so Singaporeans feel safe in their homes again.
Watch the speech here.