Sunday 25 December 2011

Smoking out Smokers

Will there be no place left for smokers?
We're already confined to our yellow boxes, so please leave us alone
By Daryl Chin, The Straits Times, 16 Dec 2011

SMOKERS are a sorry lot. Not only do they attract dirty looks and accusatory glances when they light up, this harried bunch is increasingly seeing their habit come under fire. The latest salvo comes in the form of a possible extension of the areas where smoking will be banned.

As an occasional social smoker, I wonder if that's a good idea at all.

Smokers today already face a dwindling landscape in which to light up. Cinemas were first made smoke-free in 1970.

Other locations followed: shopping malls, offices and even multi-storey carparks. Gone are the days when smokers could freely puff away within a club or hawker centre. Instead, they now huddle in miserable groups outside club premises, or are seen hunting for the elusive yellow box or designated smoking corner.

Nor is the habit cheap. Prices have skyrocketed, no thanks to a heftier tobacco tax. A pack of 20 costs about $12 today, double the price 10 years ago.

It is true smokers are adapting. Many of us are aware of the dangers this addictive habit poses, as with other vices such as alcohol. According to the Health Promotion Board, cigarettes lead to the deaths of about half the smokers, and contain more than 4,000 chemicals such as ammonia and arsenic.

We also know the ills of second-hand smoke. Those who inhale this for a long period are two to three times more likely to develop lung cancer than smokers, one recent report said. This is in part because the non-smoker directly breathes in toxic chemicals found in cigarettes that do not pass through the filter.

Knowing this, most smokers I know consciously try not to light up in front of young children, or move away from a crowd of non-smokers who happen to be in the same shared space.

But it looks like those yellow boxes or designated smoking areas - the last refuge for smokers - may be in danger.

The National Environment Agency last month launched a poll suggesting other areas that might go smoke-free. This includes common areas in housing estates such as void decks, staircases and common corridors. There was also a suggestion to do away with the designated smoking area within night spots and hawker centres entirely.

Of course this was just a poll, and online responses were varied. Still, I find the suggestion troubling because it smacks of growing intolerance of smokers, even when they are boxed into areas set aside from non-smokers.

What's the harm in a club setting aside an independently ventilated smoking room? It poses no danger to non-smoking clubgoers.

As for hawker centres, would it not make more sense to give smokers an area to congregate, rather than have them mill around just outside the compound puffing away in all directions? At least with a smoking area, non-smokers have a clear area to avoid.

To be sure, Singapore isn't alone in proposing more smoke-free areas.

Last month, the British Medical Association called for a smoking ban in cars in Britain, to protect people from second-hand smoke, reported the BBC. One study suggested the level of toxins from smoking in a car can be up to 11 times greater than that of a smoky bar.

In the United States, the Boise City Council in Idaho recently enacted a law banning smoking in all bars in the city, most outdoor patio dining areas, near bus stops, in public parks and within 6m of the city's Greenbelt path.

According to the American Non-smokers' Rights Foundation, which tracks smoke-free laws, the district now joins 479 other US municipalities that have banned smoking in all non-hospitality workplaces, restaurants and bars.

Closer to home, Malacca became the first state in Malaysia to impose smoking restrictions on parts of the city since June in a bid to increase tourism. The no-smoking area covers the entire 4.2 sq km of the city and four other areas in the southern state.

These measures have garnered strong support as well as sharp criticism.

There is no perfect solution. Each society will have to find its own balance.

For Singapore, which is generally open and inclusive towards minorities, the challenge is to find a way to protect non-smokers from the ill effects of second-hand smoke, while allowing smokers room to indulge in their habit.

The suggestion to extend a smoking ban to so many public areas leads me to wonder if Singapore society is taking the easy way out here, and passing into law what should rightfully be in the realm of civic-mindedness.

In Japan for instance, there are few prohibitions on smoking, apart from the requirement to smoke in designated smoking areas in train stations or department stores. But most Japanese smokers are considerate to non-smokers. In fact, they even carry their own little pouch to stub out cigarettes in.

As it is, 86 per cent of Singapore's population don't smoke. If the law is used to back anti-smoking sentiment, I wonder if smokers may one day be hounded out of places where they can light up.

Recently, a Straits Times letter writer asked if smoking could be banned within homes, citing the health of her two children inhaling second-hand smoke from a neighbour smoking near open windows.

If a smoker isn't allowed to light up in public, in his block's common areas and in his own home, where is he to do so?

Well, if some activists have their way, smokers shouldn't even exist in future.

A Facebook page advocating that the supply of tobacco be banned to anyone born after 2000 has garnered 13,000 likes. This would effectively ensure no future generation of Singaporeans takes up the smoking habit.

You can call me a foolhardy smoker or a downright foolish young man. But having had my choice of where to smoke already so curtailed, I prefer to retain at least the right to choose whether I want to light up.

Yes, smoking - like drinking, gambling or Internet gaming for hours - is a vice. But to each his own.

Give smokers a break

STRAITS Times journalist Daryl Chin's commentary last Friday ('Will there be no place left for smokers?') did much to highlight the plight of smokers, whose habit has sparked a slew of restrictive measures that seem to get dangerously close to infringing their freedom of choice.

First, making more places out of bounds to smokers and increasing the price of cigarettes will not deter people from smoking. We are barking up the wrong tree, if indeed that is our intention.

And it is also unrealistic to expect Singapore to one day become completely smoke-free.

While I do not smoke, I respect the right of those who choose to, provided they respect my right not to have their habit compromise my health.

We have done much, and enough, to protect non-smokers from the ill effects of second-hand smoke. To their credit, I have noticed that smokers have taken it upon themselves to avoid inconveniencing others. We must be careful not to go too far, such as telling smokers what they can or cannot do in their own homes. That would be an invasion of privacy.

Smokers are already getting a raw deal.

They have been pushed from pillar to post, ostracised by self-righteous non-smokers who seize every chance to criticise them. Further infringing on their personal freedoms could well be the proverbial last straw.

And it seems so unfair too as those who indulge in gambling and drinking are not being harassed this way. Why pick on smokers? Leave them alone.

Lee Seck Kay
ST Forum, 21 Dec 2011

Beware anti-smoking zealotry

'My sense of this growing divide between non-smokers and smokers is how intolerant Singaporeans have become.'

MS MONICA CHEANG: 'I am not a smoker but I commiserate with smokers who have increasingly fewer places to light up ('Will there be no place left for smokers?'; last Friday). When they do, they are stared down. My sense of this growing divide between non-smokers and smokers is how intolerant Singaporeans have become. I know some people have repeatedly lobbied to ban smoking from corridors. As corridors are just walk-through areas and not somewhere we hang around for extended periods, we can afford to give in a little. We will not suffocate from holding our breaths for just five seconds. To be an inclusive society, we need to be a little more tolerant. Don't ban smokers out of house and home like a witch hunt. Just in case we forget, smokers have rights too.'

Let smokers puff at home, with conditions

IT IS true that there are drastically fewer designated smoking areas now than 10 years ago, and this change has been for the better ('Will there be no place left for smokers?'; commentary by Daryl Chin, last Friday).

But is that enough? The stench of cigarette smoke is still there when one takes a walk along the streets.

Some smokers are considerate and move away from non-smokers in the same space. But the smoke lingers and is spread by the wind.

As long as one is smoking in the open, others will inevitably inhale the passive smoke. Is this fair?

Mr Chin stated that smoking prohibitions in Japan are relatively few. It is extremely hard to ferret out restaurants in Japan that prohibit smoking, invariably resulting in cigarette smoke wafting through restaurant premises and dampening the appetite of non-smokers. Should Singapore's policies be modelled after Japan's?

There is no perfect solution that protects non-smokers from cigarette smoke while allowing smokers to freely indulge in their habit.

One side must give way and so, the safety and comfort of non-smokers must take priority over the convenience of smokers. Hence, the sentiments for further restrictions on smoking areas are fully justified.

However, the situation is not a zero-sum game. The wishes of smokers should be considered, and people should be given the freedom to smoke in their own homes.

If smokers are taking that puff at home, close all doors and windows so that they will not cause discomfort to their neighbours. It will also let the smoker's family enjoy the smoke.

Lim Wei-Qi
ST Forum, 21 Dec 2011

Maine bans smoking in public housing
12,000 affected as more in US stop people from lighting up at home

AUBURN (Maine): On Jan 1, Maine will become the first state in the United States to make all of its public housing smoke-free.

The ban, which affects about 12,000 tenants, is largely a response to the risks posed to non-smokers by second-hand smoke. But property managers also say smokeless apartments are cheaper to clean, especially if there is carpeting, and reduce the risk of fire.

Ms Glenys Cushman, 53, is a tenant in one of Maine's first public housing authorities to go non-smoking. The Auburn Housing Authority took the decision in 2004, and has served as a model.

Ms Cushman, grabbing a quick cigarette outside her federally subsidised apartment, said she hates the rule that says no smoking inside or within 7.5m of the entrance.

'And I can't quit. I tried. I get too worked up without smoking. So, I come out here,' she said.

Depending on who is asked, a ban on smoking in public housing is either an effective way to promote healthier living, as many officials and non-smokers contend, or a violation of individual liberties, as some tenants argue.

But after several years of such bans, the objections have gained no legal traction. Smokers are not perceived as a protected class, and civil liberties groups and legal aid societies say they tend not to defend such cases.

'It is discrimination against the poor,' said Ms Nikki McLean, 66, a smoker living in public housing in Portland, Maine.

Ms McLean, who has diabetes, arthritis, bad knees and other chronic conditions, takes 10 minutes to get outside and across the lawn so she can stand far away enough to have a cigarette.

'I have heard them say, 'We are doing it for their own good',' Ms McLean said. 'Like we are little idiots, and we don't know what we are doing when we put a cigarette in our mouths.'

Similar no-smoking policies are being adopted with increasing frequency across the US, as cities move aggressively to restrict smoking in more public places, from bars and restaurants to parks, beaches and vehicles.

Come September next year, Boston will become the biggest city in the country to ban smoking in its public housing, which serves about 25,000 tenants. Other cities, including Detroit, San Antonio and Portland already have similar restrictions.

Housing officials point out that they do not require tenants to quit, only to smoke outside, and they often provide shelters for smokers. They also offer smoking-cessation programmes, though they say few people attend.

Many smokers just violate the ban and hope they avoid getting caught.

At Franklin Towers, a high-rise public housing development in Portland, Oregon, Mr Kevin Crocker, 55, said he was annoyed when a neighbour reported him for smoking in his apartment.

'But I don't like to go outside, especially at night, because I am afraid of getting mugged, and there are no security cameras,' he said.

But second-hand smoke, executive director Mark Adelson of the Portland Housing Authority said, is 'an overwhelming public policy issue'.

Officials at the various housing authorities, including the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, say they hear far more complaints from non-smokers about their neighbours who smoke than from smokers claiming the right to light up.

The federal housing department said it is planning to gather information next year on how various cities have carried out their bans and will report best practices, in the hope of encouraging more housing authorities to enact their own bans.

In Los Angeles, a spokesman said the Housing Authority was conducting a review and might consider a ban. In New York City, a Housing Authority spokesman said it had no position on a ban, but Mayor Michael Bloomberg has been one of the most aggressive advocates of ridding smoke from public spaces.

The rapid adoption of smoking bans in public housing was spurred by the federal department, which issued a memorandum in July 2009 saying it 'strongly encourages' the housing authorities to enact bans. The agency cited reports that second-hand smoke caused the deaths of 50,000 non-smokers nationwide each year.

Still, questions of fairness persist because those below the poverty line tend to smoke more than those above it.

US studies show that, on average, 30 per cent of people in public housing are smokers, compared with 20 per cent of the general population.

NEW YORK TIMES, 19 Dec 2011

Singapore considers widening smoking ban
The Straits Times, 19 Dec 2011

SMOKING is banned in the majority of indoor locations in Singapore. Among them are shopping malls, cinemas and night spots.

Smoking is also not allowed in places such as bus stops, swimming pools and basement carparks. Designated smoking areas are allowed in certain premises such as eating establishments and entertainment outlets.

The authorities are now considering extending a smoking ban to public spaces such as common corridors and staircase landings in HDB blocks, parks and park connectors, and beaches.

Smoking corners in entertainment outlets, hawker centres and food establishments may also have to go. All these areas have been flagged as problem spots based on public feedback gathered by the National Environment Agency (NEA).

It launched an islandwide consultation exercise last month seeking views from the public whether they want smoking at these places banned.

The proposal to widen the smoking ban comes after the NEA caught an increasing number of people flouting the law. In the first 10 months of this year, it issued 4,462 tickets to errant smokers. Last year, the figure was 4,646. Offenders can be fined up to $1,000.

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