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Speech on the Adjournment Motion of Protection Against Secondhand Smoke in Homes by Dr Amy Khor, Senior Minister of State for Sustainability and the Environment
05 OCT 2020
Speech by Dr Amy Khor, Senior Minister of State for Sustainability and the Environment, on the Adjournment Motion on Protection Against Secondhand Smoke in Homes
1 Mr Speaker, protecting Singaporeans against secondhand tobacco smoke has always been our priority. I thank Mr Louis Ng for his proposal to curb secondhand smoke. Many Members, including myself, have received similar suggestions.
2 Let me assure everyone that my Ministry is equally concerned about secondhand smoke. I empathise with all who have suffered from this.
3 We have always recognised the serious health risk from secondhand smoke. We first introduced smoking prohibition in omnibuses, cinemas and theatres in 1970 and have progressively expanded this to more public places. We were among the first globally to impose a nation-wide smoking ban in the covered common areas of residential estates.
4 Currently, smoking is prohibited in more than 32,000 places and we will do more.
5 Singapore has introduced robust policies to discourage smoking such as raising the minimum legal age of smoking and introducing standardised packaging for tobacco products. Through public education and nudges, we urge smokers to quit their habit.
6 Consequently, the daily smoking prevalence has decreased from 18.3% in 1992 to 13.9% in 2010 and 10.6% in 2019. We continue to work on driving down smoking prevalence, which will also reduce the incidence of secondhand smoke.
Secondhand Smoke Problem within Residential Areas
7 Let me turn to the issue of secondhand smoke experienced in homes.
8 Of the 11,400 smoking complaints received in the first 4 months of 2020, 58% or 6,630 complaints were in residential estates. As more residents work from home during the COVID-19 pandemic, there has been an uptick in smoking complaints in residential estates. 95% or 6,310 of these complaints were related to smoking in common corridors, staircases and void decks. The remaining 5% or 320 involved smoking in homes.
9 NEA has prioritised surveillance at common areas, in particular, common corridors, staircases and void decks at residential estates. Thermal cameras are also deployed at smoking hotspots. In the first half of 2020, NEA took 2,400 enforcement actions at these areas, a 37% increase from the same time period last year.
10 For complaints of smoking in homes, NEA, Town Councils and grassroots leaders take an educational approach, and advise smokers to be considerate and not smoke near windows and balconies. Most smokers take heed, except for a small group of recalcitrant smokers.
11 For such cases, grassroots leaders, NEA and relevant agencies help to mediate between neighbours and discuss adjustments to be made. Affected residents can turn to the Community Mediation Centre. They can also raise the matter to the Community Disputes Resolution Tribunal (CDRT) as a last resort. Between January 2019 and July 2020, 25 claims relating to excessive smoke, caused by cigarettes or incense, were filed with the CDRT. Quite a number of claimants were able to resolve issues amicably without proceeding to the Tribunal.
Smoking Ban at Balconies and Windows
12 Mr Louis Ng and GPC Members have proposed that we ban smoking at balconies and windows of homes. We are just as keen to resolve this issue and have carefully studied these suggestions.
13 Unfortunately, besides the fact that such legislation could be highly intrusive, there are significant practical challenges in enforcement that limit effectiveness.
14 First, enforcement will be challenging as capturing evidence of the smoking offence is not straightforward. Smelling the tobacco smoke is not sufficient as cameras must capture the smoker 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 camera. Overall, this may entail deployment of significant resources without achieving effective outcomes.
15 Second, to capture the smoking act, the camera must be placed at suitable vantage points to probe into the window or balcony. For towering flats, finding the right vantage point in common areas to deploy the camera is not always possible. Directly aiming cameras into homes is highly intrusive, unlike surveillance for high rise littering where the camera is trained at the building façade and can be placed at ground level some distance away.
16 Finally, this will exacerbate existing concerns about privacy and infringing the owner’s rights to his or her private space. Meadows@Peirce is a case in point. A dispute had ensued in 2017 between the condominium management committee and its residents when a circular directed residents to refrain from smoking at balconies and windows. Some residents argued that the management committee should not dictate actions in private spaces.
17 We have studied overseas practices too, some of which were cited by the Member. Globally, there are few instances of bans on smoking in homes. In the US, the smoking ban in homes is limited to public rental housing which accounts for a tiny fraction, in fact 1 per cent, of the total housing stock.
18 In Australia, some states ban smoking in common areas of multi-unit housing, and exempt private spaces, although owner corporations can adopt their own by-laws to cover private living areas.
19 This is similar to what we have in Singapore. Smoking is already banned in many common areas of residential estates. MCSTs can opt to adopt by-laws to expand the ban in their estates, with support from residents.
20 In US the ban is enforced by Public Housing Authorities, whilst in Australia, the owner-corporations have to enforce the ban.
21 Even in countries where there are bans, effectiveness has been mixed and uncertain at best. In US public housing, there was difficulty in securing evidence for enforcement and smokers also saw this as a violation of privacy.
22 The difficulties in enforcing against smoking in homes and privacy concerns can lead to greater frustration, exacerbate disputes and increase social tensions. This was the case at Meadows@Peirce. The overseas examples show that enforcement is challenging.
Changing Social Norms; Facilitating Conversations; Resolving Disputes Amicably
23 We must work hard to address the difficult issue of secondhand smoke from homes but legislation against smoking at windows or balconies may not be that silver bullet.
24 Instead, we will pursue a three-pronged approach.
25 First, we will work harder to engender greater social responsibility. This means instilling consideration for the health and well-being of those around us, not just family members but also our neighbours. We must entrench new social norms of what constitutes acceptable behaviour. For example, stop smoking in homes, including at windows and balconies, and do so only in non-prohibited areas away from others.
26 NEA will work with other agencies such as MOH, HPB, MND and MSO to explore effective ways of doing this. For example, by developing targeted messages on exercising social responsibility, as well as acceptable social norms. These can then be communicated pervasively across key platforms, including social media channels. We will also partner the community to amplify these messages.
27 Changing norms will take time but we must work doubly hard as it gets to the very heart of the problem that legislation and enforcement, at least with today’s level of technology, cannot fix.
28 Second, we will examine more ways to facilitate productive conversations between neighbours to deal with difficult situations, before they escalate into intractable disputes. For example, we could develop simple messages for neighbours to communicate concerns with one another or share best practices from successful efforts to resolve neighbourly disputes. We will also look at how to leverage community networks and links, including grassroots, to bring neighbours together in conversations.
29 Third, we will work with agencies to study how these disputes can be better addressed by the inter-agency Community Dispute Management Framework. For example, we will work with agencies to review the Community Mediation Process and the Community Disputes Resolution Tribunal, to enhance their effectiveness when residents have to resort to these channels. Nonetheless, we hope that most cases will not have to end up in community mediation or with the Tribunal.
30 The best way to protect against secondhand smoke is for family members and neighbours to help smokers cut down and quit smoking. And if they have to smoke, not to light up at home and instead smoke at non-prohibited areas.
31 Sir, I fully appreciate the frustration and distress of those who suffer from secondhand smoke at home. We are determined to address this and will work hard with government agencies and the community on the strategies that I laid out. At the same time, we will continue to monitor best practices globally and improvements in technology. We will stay open to innovative and practicable solutions as they emerge.
32 Ultimately, mitigating the impact of secondhand smoke requires everyone to play their part. Smokers must exercise consideration for the health of their family and neighbours. As a community, we must help one another build the right social norms for a healthy and gracious society.