Speech by Dr Amy Khor, Senior Minister of State for Sustainability and the Environment, on the Adjournment Motion on Using Deterrence to Tackle Second-hand Smoke in Homes
1 Mr Speaker, I thank the Members for their impassioned pleas regarding second-hand tobacco smoke in homes. Let me assure everyone that we also take this matter seriously and are doing what we practically and reasonably can to tackle this issue.
2 As part of our national health policy to discourage smoking, and protect the public from second-hand smoke, we have expanded smoking prohibition extensively, to more than 32,000 places. In residential areas, this includes common corridors and stairwells of apartment blocks right up to the doorstep. We are now looking into extending the smoking prohibition to more places.
3 Through concerted efforts, Singapore's smoking prevalence has been driven down to 10.1% in 2020, half the global average of 20%.
Deterrence is Premised on Effective Enforcement
4 Mr Louis Ng and Miss Poh Li San have asked my Ministry to prohibit smoking at windows and balconies to minimise second-hand smoke drift. We appreciate their intent but as previously explained during a motion on the same issue in October 2020, enforcement is not simple.
5 First let me clarify the intent of Sections 43, 44 and 45 in Part V of the Environmental Public Health Act or EPHA, which are on the abatement of public nuisances through the use of Nuisance Orders, and explain why they cannot be used to prohibit smoking at windows and balconies. This part of the EPHA was enacted in the context of 1960s Singapore to provide for quick mitigative action to arrest public nuisances from specific industrial activities. It is not the purpose of the EPHA to deal with smoking prohibition. This is why the Smoking (Prohibition in Certain Places) Act was enacted in 1970. Part V of the EPHA addresses public nuisances that affect the public at large and not private nuisances which interfere with another person's use or enjoyment of his property, which is the situation with smoking in homes.
6 To achieve deterrence, not only do we need the appropriate law, we also need effective enforcement. Unfortunately, NEA's assessment is that this is not achievable with current enforcement modalities and technology. If we were to prohibit smoking at windows and balconies, we can be sure there will be smokers who will find ways to avoid getting caught. They could smoke in balcony corners, or in toilets with windows or ventilation fans, which some already do. Smoke will inevitably seep out and can still travel to neighbouring units. So the problem remains.
7 We cannot prosecute people based solely on complaints of smell or smoke wafting from neighbouring units. We have to catch the offender in the act of smoking at the balcony or window, or have witnesses come forward to testify that they witnessed the act. Yet complainants are often unable to accurately identify the source of the smell. Each case will require extensive manpower and resources to investigate, with no guarantee of successful enforcement.
8 Furthermore, to undertake investigation, we will need to accept significant social trade-offs. As noted, smokers who want to evade enforcement are unlikely to stand in full view at the balcony or window. To clearly capture a person in the act of smoking at windows and balconies, cameras would have to be of a sufficient resolution and trained directly into units. Their field of view would also cover neighbouring units and potentially include innocent neighbours engaged in other activities. Are we prepared for such intrusive measures?
9 These are just some of the many challenges faced in catching the culprit, given current technology. Residents could become even more frustrated, as there is a law but with great enforcement difficulties.
10 Even for high-rise littering, where there has been a significant number of successful enforcements, many still express frustration that offenders have not been caught, an issue that has also been discussed in this House.
11 As people spend more time at home nowadays, NEA has stepped up its enforcement efforts in HDB estates to address the issue of second-hand smoke in homes. 11,000 tickets were issued in 2020 compared to 7,100 in 2019 for smoking in prohibited areas such as common corridors and stairwells of flats which can lead to second-hand smoke in homes.
12 While this would be of little comfort to our Members Mr Ng and Ms Poh, Singapore is not alone in grappling with this intractable issue. Other jurisdictions that have attempted regulation have done so on a very selective basis; and more importantly, have not experienced clear success. Norfolk, Virginia banned smoking in public housing rental units in 2018. Non-compliance could result in the termination of the tenant's lease, a huge consequence. The situation improved in the first month, but within a year, the situation had reverted to what it had been previously, as smokers resumed smoking at home. Why so? While the consequences were real and serious, the chances of being caught were not.
13 We also need to recognise that there are wide-ranging views on this issue, which touches fundamentally on an individual's rights in his own home. Prohibiting smoking in homes, even if just at windows and balconies, is controversial. Homes are private spaces, and it can be viewed as intrusive for governments to regulate what people can and cannot do there.
14 Last year, the City and County of San Francisco put forward a proposal to prohibit smoking in all multi-unit residences. The legislation did not garner enough votes and was not enacted as some tenants contended that the ban would infringe on their personal rights inside their homes.
Legislation not a panacea. We must pursue a Community Approach.
15 For Singapore, we must address this potentially divisive issue in a way which strengthens rather than hinders our efforts to cultivate a gracious and cohesive society.
16 For example, residents are coming together to discuss ground-up solutions to address neighbourly issues, including second-hand smoke in homes, under the Municipal Services Office's or MSO's Love Our 'Hood initiative. MSO has rolled this out in Mountbatten and Pioneer, and will be bringing it to Bukit Gombak.
17 We will also keep a lookout for innovations and technological solutions. In June, two Designated Smoking Points (DSPs) with improved designs were set up in Clementi as a community pilot project. We will monitor the outcome of this latest pilot study on the effectiveness of DSPs to reduce smoking in homes.
18 Last Friday, MND called for proposals for innovative solutions on managing second-hand smoke from neighbouring homes. Technological solutions that remove second-hand smoke at source, or prevent its drift, could bring reprieve to affected residents. We hope to see promising submissions from enterprises.
19 The pandemic has been a difficult time for all. For many, this has led to heightened tensions and fewer interactions among neighbours. Where there are problems of second-hand smoke from homes, I encourage neighbours to communicate with one another as a first step towards resolving the matter. My Ministry has worked with various agencies to enhance joint advisories issued to smokers. Most smokers cooperate, and thus far less than 10% of the feedback we receive recur within a year.
20 My Ministry is also part of a workgroup that is reviewing the Community Dispute Management Framework. We are proposing enhancements to increase the effectiveness of the community mediation process and the Community Disputes Resolution Tribunal. The workgroup will share updates in due course.
21 I want to assure Members that we are committed to tackling second-hand smoke from homes and are monitoring global best practices and developments in technology and legislation. We stay open to innovative and practicable solutions, and will continue to draw on the ideas and efforts of all stakeholders to address this issue for a more gracious and cohesive society.