Monday, 17 September 2018

Stuck with a smoking neighbour: When neighbours' amity goes up in smoke

MPs say more can be done to help residents enduring smoke from neighbouring flats
By Hariz Baharudin, The Sunday Times, 16 Sep 2018

IT supervisor Azfar keeps a can of scented insecticide in his flat, but it is not for cockroaches or mosquitoes. It is for another kind of pest.

Whenever pesky cigarette smoke from a neighbouring unit wafts into his living room, he will go to the window and start spraying in the culprit's direction.

"That is how I send a message that their smoking is inconsiderate," said the 37-year-old who, perhaps unsurprisingly, declined to give his full name for this report. "If they can blow smoke into my house, then they would not mind some nice-smelling insecticide."

The windows in the living room of his five-room HDB flat in the northern part of Singapore are usually kept closed, even though he, his wife and their four-year-old son spend most of their time there when they are at home.

"Upstairs, left, right, all around me, there are smokers," said Mr Azfar, who lives on the fourth floor. "My wife is asthmatic and the smoke makes her and my son sick."

He stops short of confronting his neighbours because he does not want to risk offending them. "What if they pick a fight and make life difficult for my family?"

He is one of many who want the authorities to do something.

Last Monday in Parliament, several MPs urged the Government to take action against smokers whose second-hand smoke affects their neighbours.

They were speaking during the debate on amendments to the Smoking (Prohibition in Certain Places) Act, which empowers National Environment Agency (NEA) officers to enter places where smoking is prohibited without warrants to investigate violations. On banning smoking at home, Senior Minister of State for Health Amy Khor said: "Such an intrusive regulatory approach to tackling neighbourly issues could ultimately be even more detrimental to community harmony."

Following the debate, several people wrote to The Straits Times' Forum page to lament about their neighbours' cigarette smoke.

Video producer Alice Chong, 26, lives on the fourth floor of a condominium in Bukit Timah where smoking is banned in common areas, but not in residential units.

The smoke from her neighbour's unit on the floor below sometimes wafts into her home, forcing her to close her unit's windows. She said: "I don't want to confront them so I just close my windows, but I do wish they would not blow the smoke out of their windows."

Under current laws, smoking is banned in most indoor locations, including entertainment outlets. Smokers also cannot take a puff in the common area of any residential premises or building, including common corridors and void decks.

They can only light up at designated smoking areas and approved smoking rooms or corners, and certain open areas such as beaches, uncovered walkways and on the top deck of multi-storey carpark buildings. They can also smoke at home.

MPs say they get many complaints from residents about second-hand smoke wafting into their homes. Nee Soon GRC MP Louis Ng, who had spoken in Parliament on this, said such complaints are a "weekly occurrence".

While he is not calling for a total ban on smoking at home, he does hope that more can be done.

"It is ironic that people who smoke do so at the window or balcony because they do not want the smoke to get into their own homes, but in doing so, it goes into the homes of others," he said.

Ms Cheryl Chan, MP for Fengshan, echoed Mr Ng's point that a total ban in homes is not the solution. But she also hears frequent complaints from her residents about this and urged smokers to be more socially responsible and contain the smoke to their unit.

"It does not matter how many Acts you put in place, enforcement will always be difficult on the ground. So the main thing is for individuals to know where their social responsibility is," she said.

Entrepreneur Hakim Salahudin, 27, who smokes about eight cigarettes a day at home, said he stays away from his windows when he lights up. He is against a ban on smoking at home but believes smokers should be more considerate.

"If you don't want the smoke to stay in your own home, then you should make sure it does not go into other homes too," he said.


The number of smokers has dropped over the years, from 18.3 per cent in 1992 to 12 per cent in 2004, and has since hovered around there. The Government wants to bring this to below 10 per cent by 2020.

National University of Singapore sociologist Tan Ern Ser believes more people are now aware of the harm cigarette smoke can cause, which makes them less tolerant of it, especially in their own homes.

"If they have to put up with cigarette smoke on a regular basis right where one would expect some comfort and freedom from unwanted noise and smoke, it would be experienced as an unbearable source of irritation and stress," he said.

There are also medical risks associated with second-hand smoke.

The 2018 edition of the Tobacco Atlas, a publication of the American Cancer Society and global public health organisation Vital Strategies, said children exposed to second-hand smoke could suffer from middle ear disease, impaired lung function and asthma. For adults, second-hand smoke could increase the chance of stroke, heart problems and lung cancer.

Oncologist Wong Seng Weng said that over time, smoke that gathers in a confined space can seep into items around the house, such as furniture and fabric. "These substances can stay in your house for a long time. If children touch furniture with these substances and touch their mouth, it can be harmful to health," he said.

The NEA received around 270 complaints about cigarette smoke drifting into homes last year, compared with around 500 in 2013.

A spokesman said that when dealing with such cases, its officers will advise residents who smoke to not do so at the windows, balcony or doors. In private estates such as condominiums, the NEA informs the respective management corporations so they can act on the complaint.

If the issue persists, the affected residents will be referred to the Community Mediation Centre (CMC).

Mr Ng said that given the lack of a legislative lever, not much can be done to help residents whose lives are affected by smoke from neighbours. He refers his residents to the CMC, but it does not always work. Going to the CMC is optional.

"Sometimes, the only option for these people is to move out," he said, although he has not seen this happen.

In a country where homes are packed so close together, errant cigarette smoke is just one of many irritants people face. Others have complained of noise and cooking smells.

Associate Professor Tan said communication is key to settling such problems, and both sides must show a willingness to make reasonable adjustments and hope for a win-win solution.

Mr Azfar, though, hopes the Government will step in. "When people stop blowing smoke into my home, I will stop spraying insecticide into their homes," he said.

Dangers of second-hand smoke
By Hariz Baharudin, The Sunday Times, 16 Sep 2018

Although less than 15 per cent of people here are smokers, no one is immune to the dangers of second-hand smoke, according to medical experts.

Dr Madeleine Chew, a general practitioner at MW Medical, told The Sunday Times that second-hand smoke can be dangerous for infants. It can trigger a host of diseases and harmful conditions including asthma attacks, ear infections, bronchitis, pneumonia, coughing and sneezing.

The 2018 edition of the Tobacco Atlas, a publication of the American Cancer Society and global public health organisation Vital Strategies, said there is sufficient evidence to show that second-hand smoke can cause middle ear disease, impaired lung function and sudden infant death syndrome in children. Dr Chew added that in adults, second-hand smoke could cause stroke, heart disease and lung cancer.

The Tobacco Atlas said there is also suggestive evidence to show that second-hand smoke could lead to breast cancer, chronic and acute respiratory symptoms, and impaired lung function.

Those with frequent exposure to second-hand smoke have a higher risk of lung cancer of about 25 per cent compared with those who are not similarly exposed, according to oncologist Wong Seng Weng.

The Health Promotion Board says on its website that about six Singaporeans die prematurely from smoking-related diseases each day.


Complaints on cigarette smoke drifting into homes halved over 5 years to 270 in 2017
By Jose Hong, The Straits Times, 12 Sep 2018

The number of complaints about cigarette smoke drifting into residential homes dropped by almost half over five years, according to figures revealed by the National Environment Agency (NEA).

Responding to The Straits Times' queries, an NEA spokesman said yesterday that the agency received about 270 such complaints last year, compared with around 500 in 2013.

The issue was back in the public spotlight on Monday as Members of Parliament debated and passed changes to the Smoking (Prohibition in Certain Places) Act.

Some of them, like Tanjong Pagar GRC MP Joan Pereira and Nee Soon GRC MP Lee Bee Wah, called for the law to apply to smokers' homes, while Senior Minister of State for Health Amy Khor said that the Government did not want to intrude into people's homes on this issue.

Ms Pereira wanted in Parliament to make it illegal for second-hand smoke to drift out of a person's home and, in further comments to The Straits Times yesterday, said she receives complaints on the subject around twice monthly. "Many of the complaints that I receive are from households with people who are more vulnerable to the health effects of second-hand smoke," she said.

"While I recognise that smokers have their right to smoke and their right to do so in their homes, we also must all be considerate and tolerant of each other. Their neighbours also wish to have a smoke-free and healthy environment to live in, especially the elderly or those with children and those who may have respiratory problems."


Sociology professor Paulin Straughan said that the public pays attention to the issue of smoking in residential areas because of how closely people live together, and because of the Government's strong anti-smoking drive. She said, however, that it is a complex situation, and different policies need to apply to different types of smokers.

Smoking is already forbidden in common living spaces such as corridors and lift lobbies.

"We need to understand why a young person would pick up smoking... There is a group of smokers who are generally from a lower socio-economic class and, because of circumstance and the social environment they're in, smoking is the norm," said the Singapore Management University dean of students.

Prof Straughan said there must be effective alternatives and education in place for these people, so that they can effectively stop.

In her closing speech in Parliament on Monday, Dr Khor said residents who cannot resolve smoking disputes with their neighbours can go to the Community Mediation Centre (CMC) in Tanjong Pagar.

A Law Ministry spokesman said CMC received 12 cases of disputes among neighbours involving cigarette smoke in the first six months of the year. Only in one of the cases did the applicants agree to move to the mediation stage. The dispute was resolved successfully.

Marketing manager Eddie Ng is a heavy smoker who has watched the public discussion with discomfort.

He believes smokers themselves should be more aware of whether their neighbours are home and, if they are, smoke less. But the 52-year-old does not support a smoking ban that affects a person within his own home. "The spaces we have for smoking are getting smaller and smaller. Now, it's like we must hide ourselves."

But non-smoker Lester Lai, 25, said he supports a ban. He said cigarette smoke from his downstairs neighbour drifts into his room daily.

"It's the same idea as not blasting your music late at night because it disturbs other neighbours," said the research assistant. "It's all about common courtesy and thinking about the people around you."

Parliament: NEA officers get more powers to investigate smoking violations, says Amy Khor
By Jose Hong, The Straits Times, 12 Sep 2018

Officers from the National Environment Agency (NEA) will be able to enter smoking-prohibited places without warrants to investigate smoking violations, and it will be illegal to obstruct or prevent them from collecting evidence.

NEA was also given the power to officially designate Orchard Road as a non-smoking zone, as the precinct prepares to ban public smoking by the end of the year.

In presenting the amendments to the Smoking (Prohibition in Certain Places) Act, which were passed yesterday, Senior Minister of State for Health Amy Khor said the increased powers for officers were needed to ensure that NEA could effectively maintain Singapore's smoking bans.

Dr Khor said: "Currently, to investigate complaints about smoking violations, NEA enters and inspects the premises with the manager's consent. While most have been cooperative, some managers have hindered investigations by denying NEA's authorised officers entry into their premises, which prevents timely, effective investigation and enforcement."

She also said Orchard Road would be the only geographical area in Singapore marked as a smoke-free zone for now. The authorities will assess if it is successful before extending the concept elsewhere.

Seven Members of Parliament spoke in favour of the Bill, though all of them urged the Government to take stronger action against smokers in residential flats whose second-hand smoke affects their neighbours.

Mr Louis Ng (Nee Soon GRC) said: "It would seem at odds to protect people from second-hand smoke in the public areas where they spend less time and not protect them at home where they spend more time."

Ms Cheryl Chan (Fengshan) gave the example of how one of her residents was affected by neighbours chain-smoking in the corridors, forcing her to turn on the air-conditioning in her home for the sake of her young children.

Ms Joan Pereira (Tanjong Pagar GRC) suggested making it illegal for smoke to drift out of one's home, saying: "They should not be standing near the windows, doors or corridors to smoke. If smoke is detected outside of the flat, the resident should then be considered to have violated the law."

In response, Dr Khor cautioned against intruding into people's private homes in this realm.

"If we were to prohibit smoking in one's own home, it would inevitably entail bringing to bear the necessary investigation and enforcement powers," she said. "Such an intrusive regulatory approach to tackling neighbourly issues could ultimately be even more detrimental to community harmony."

Dr Khor said the Government has in fact seen a decrease in reports of second-hand cigarette smoke drifting into other residents' homes.

Many MPs also raised concerns over how the Bill would be enforced effectively.

Mr Gan Thiam Poh (Ang Mo Kio GRC) asked what measures the ministry has taken to facilitate enforcement, and make it more efficient.

Responding, Dr Khor talked about the use of technology such as thermal cameras, for which the Government has called a tender. She also said that friends and family members of smokers should fully support them if they are trying to quit.

She said: "Enforcement is necessary, but not the silver bullet. Instead, our deeper aim is to foster social norms that promote health and well-being."

* Are NEA cameras being used to catch people smoking in their homes? It's fake news, agency says
National Environment Agency clarifies online rumours and says its cameras in HDB blocks are used to nab litterbugs
By Timothy Goh, The Straits Times, 27 Sep 2018

The National Environment Agency (NEA) does not conduct enforcement against individuals who smoke in their homes as the law does not prohibit smoking in residences, the agency said in a Facebook post yesterday.

The post comes after rumours circulated on social media earlier this week, claiming that the agency had put up cameras in Housing Board (HDB) blocks to catch people smoking in their bedrooms.

"Beware of #FakeNews," the NEA said.

On Sunday, Twitter user @kiisamii claimed that his brother's friend was fined $200 for smoking near his room and that the NEA had photographic evidence of him doing so.

In response to his post, another Twitter user posted a picture of equipment with the NEA's logo which was placed along the corridor of an HDB flat.

A third user shared the photos as well, with the caption: "So they just summoned someone and this was the camera that they installed to catch those smoking in bedrooms and all... NEA you so despo is it? On ground didn't catch enough? (sic)"

In its Facebook post yesterday, the NEA said the cameras spotted are used only for high-rise littering enforcement. "NEA currently deploys surveillance cameras in areas with persistent high-rise littering to catch the culprits," it said.

It added that such cameras are positioned to focus only on the external facade of the housing units or common areas that are being investigated. Strict protocols are also in place on the use of the video footage, which is shared only to facilitate investigations or for the purpose of prosecution in court.

The NEA said it has thermal surveillance cameras for smoking enforcement purposes. These will be deployed from the first half of next year in areas where smoking is prohibited, as well as public spaces where people persistently flout the smoking ban, such as at common corridors, lift lobbies and staircase landings.

No comments:

Post a Comment