'Absolutely nothing anyone can do': MPs Louis Ng, Poh Li San want existing laws to tackle smoking at windows, balconies

Mr Louis Ng said existing public nuisance laws can and should be used to deter smokers from lighting up near windows and at balconies.
PHOTO: The Straits Times file

SINGAPORE - Existing public nuisance laws can and should be used to deter smokers from lighting up near windows and on balconies, to minimise the effects of second-hand smoke on neighbours, said an MP on Monday (Sept 13).

Tapping the power of deterrence is one way to tackle second-hand smoke in residential areas without the need for new legislation, Mr Louis Ng (Nee Soon GRC) said in Parliament. He chairs the Government Parliamentary Committee (GPC) for Sustainability and the Environment.

In response, Senior Minister of State for Sustainability and the Environment Amy Khor said that deterrence is effective only if there is a real chance of offenders getting caught.

She gave the example of Norfolk city in the US state of Virginia, where smoking was banned in public housing rental units in 2018 and non-compliance could result in the termination of a tenant's lease.

"The situation improved in the first month, but within a year, it reverted to what it had been previously, as smokers resumed smoking at home. Why so? While the consequences were real, the chances of being caught were not," she said.

Mr Ng cited Section 43 of the Environmental Public Health Act, which empowers the National Environment Agency (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", he added.

"That sure sounds like second-hand smoke. Why is the Government not using this law to take a clear stance that smoking near windows and on balconies is illegal?" said Mr Ng.

Dr Khor said the law cannot be used to prohibit smoking near windows and on balconies, as the law was enacted in the 1960s for the authorities to take "quick mitigative action" to arrest public nuisances from specific industrial activities, and not for the purpose of dealing with smoking prohibition.

The Smoking (Prohibition in Certain Places) Act, enacted in 1970, 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, she said.

Mr Ng had spoken about the issue of second-hand smoke in Parliament last year, then calling for a ban on residents smoking near windows or on the balconies of their homes.

Dr Khor said then that such legislation would be "highly intrusive" and would pose significant practical challenges in enforcement.

She reiterated the point on Monday, noting that the issue touches fundamentally on an individual's right in their own home.

On Monday, Mr Ng emphasised that the call is not for smoking at home to be made illegal.

Rather, it is a call for the Government to use the existing law to deter smokers, which will work, as Singapore is "generally a nation of law abiders", he said.

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He noted that 383 people in Singapore died due to second-hand smoke in 2016, which is around one person a day, and the numbers have been growing each year.

He cited a resident who had moved house three times in the past six years because of her neighbour's second-hand smoke, noting that it is "not fair" to them nor can everyone afford to move repeatedly to avoid such issues.

Mr Ng suggested leveraging the new LCD screens in HDB lift lobbies to start an awareness campaign which takes a clear stance on the "illegality of the bad behaviour".

Agreeing with Mr Ng, Ms Poh Li San (Sembawang GRC), who is deputy chairman of the GPC for Sustainability and the Environment, called for the authorities to consider second-hand smoke as hazardous to health.

"There is absolutely nothing anyone can do to help the innocent victims of second-hand smokers. Town council, HDB, NEA and police officers have been called to assist residents in some of these incidents. However, no one, including myself as their representative MP, has any legal right to stop anyone from smoking at their window or balconies," she said.

Dr Khor said the Government continues to look at emerging technology solutions and is also monitoring global approaches to tackle the issue.

Last Friday, the Ministry of National Development called for innovative solutions from companies that can help reduce second-hand smoke at its source or to prevent it from entering neighbouring units.

This article was first published in The Straits TimesPermission required for reproduction.