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Secondhand smoke — especially in HDB flats and private condominiums, where people live in close proximity to each other — has always been an issue in Singapore.
Even more so in the past two years as more people, smokers and non-smokers alike, work from home.
2020 saw a significant rise in smoking-related feedback, with strong interest in the issue of smoking within homes. In particular, there has been vocal public concern over smoking within homes, with many calling for a ban on smoking at windows and balconies.
Member of Parliament Louis Ng has been a strong proponent of this ban, bringing it up twice in Parliament, including last year, when he argued for using an existing law to tackle the issue of secondhand smoke from neighbours.
In public, there are fewer places for people to smoke in public now.
As of June, smoking is no longer allowed at all public parks, some water sites and 10 recreational beaches, with enforcement starting in October to give smokers time to adjust to the new rules.
The authorities have said that this is part of Singapore’s efforts to clamp down on smoking and tackle second-hand tobacco smoke.
Yet while most of us are clear about the health hazards of smoking, with most Singaporeans living in close proximity in HDB flats or condos, the grey area these days (dare we say, ash-grey?) is about smoking at home.
It is no longer about public spaces but about private home life.
If we pass a law that restricts smoking inside homes, it intrudes into smokers’ private lives.
Yet, by smoking in their own homes, especially near balconies or windows, smokers are potentially endangering the health and private lives of their neighbours.
Smokers voice out
The Pride spoke with some smokers on their thoughts of a smoking ban at home.
“In my opinion, it is kind of extreme to not allow smoking in the house as there is nowhere else nearby for me to light up. The ban on smoking in corridors and void decks is understandable as it may affect the neighbours but I think it is unfair if it is to the point of banning it in my own personal space,” said 21-year-old Naufal Ahmad.
Civil servant Ivan Lim, 40, agreed. He said: “I don’t really like the idea. If we are talking about public places, then it is fair enough, but it should not be the case for personal space.”
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One of the biggest misconceptions that non-smokers tend to have about their smoking neighbours is that they have zero consideration for others.
No doubt, there are always cases of residents having to resort to community mediation council sessions to work things out with their neighbours — not just on smoking-related issues.
But actually, most smokers are willing to compromise with their neighbours if they can find a solution that will benefit both sides without involving external parties.
“Technically, it is my own house so I should have my own privacy. But if the smoke is going to affect others then somebody has to sacrifice and it would most likely be the person who smokes. It is the smoker’s responsibility to ensure that their habit does not affect others if they do want to smoke at home.” said senior operation supervisor Shawn Navidran, 34.
Smokers often don’t even realise that the smell of their cigarettes is affecting their neighbours as they cannot control where the smoke travels. However, that does not mean it is their intention to cause inconvenience to others.
Said Naufal: “If the smell of my cigarette affects my neighbours and they come to me to tell me, I will stop smoking at that window to be considerate to them. Not only that, when others tell me to smoke in a different area as they don’t like the smell, I would move so as to not be an inconvenience to them.”
“It is understandable that smoking at home may affect others as the smoke may enter other people’s houses. For myself, I try my best to not disturb my neighbours who don’t smoke.” added Ivan.
In a workshop conducted by the Municipal Services Office (MSO) in Pioneer last August, residents and grassroot leaders met to discuss community norms in the neighbourhood, including noise complaints and secondhand smoke issues.
Participants from the Love Our ‘Hood Initiative @ Pioneer workgroup tried to resolve opposing points of view on secondhand smoke issues in a frank but constructive manner.
For example, on smoking at non-designated areas, participants shared:
“As a non-smoker, I don’t want to approach a smoker and ask them to smoke elsewhere.”
“I smoke here because it is convenient and close to my home. I also want to protect my family members from my cigarette smoke.”
On smoking at home, they said:
“I’ll have to shut my door and windows, endure and wait for it to pass.”
“Where I smoke is my choice and if I smoke at home, I will not close the windows. Who on earth would close their windows….rather not affect my own home!”
After airing their issues, participants came to a consensus.
They agreed that any solutions should balance the needs of smokers and non-smokers; encourage mutual understanding and fairness; and to be non-judgmental towards smokers.
They also worked with a tangible outcome in mind: To find a suitable spot in the community where smokers can congregate to smoke.
Said a representative from the workshop: “There is a common misconception between smokers and non-smokers. The non-smokers affected by secondhand smoke or its lingering smell usually assume that the smoker is deliberately causing an inconvenience to them.
“In truth, the smokers who were interviewed shared a common perspective — they are willing to compromise or sacrifice to a certain extent in order not to be a nuisance to others, had they been told about it.”
In other words, as the workshop showed, it’s easier if neighbours can just talk about issues amicably first.
Need to Smoke, Then How?
Recently, the Singapore Kindness Movement piloted a poster campaign in neighbourhoods at Sembawang West and Nee Soon East to foster dialogue over the issue of secondhand smoke in HDB flats.
Part of SKM’s ongoing “Then How” campaign, the posters put the reader into the shoes of both smokers and non-smokers to encourage the different sides to understand each other.
These posters have been pasted on notice boards and lift decals in Nee Soon, and flashed on digital display panels in Sembawang West.
Said Nee Soon East MP Louis Ng: “I thank SKM for their support and partnership on this issue of secondhand smoke. Many residents face this issue daily and it is important that we all work together, find common ground and remember that ‘a kinder you can make our communities stronger’!”
Sembawang West MP Poh Li San told The Pride: “Living in a high-rise, densely populated environment requires give and take and consideration for each other. Let’s try to minimise activities that may affect the well-being of our neighbours.”
A different perspective
At the end of the day, dialogue is always better before we resort to more restrictive methods of dealing with a problem.
A ban on smoking in homes may make non-smokers happy, but it eats into the private rights of homeowners.
It is important to understand and hear opinions from both sides of the issue.
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Instead of being quick to complain and judge from your own perspective, it is better to go to your neighbour to express your concerns and talk things out. Don’t jump to conclusions when the situation could have developed from an honest mistake. You may discover that your “inconsiderate neighbour” is actually a pleasant person!
It is also important to talk things out in a polite and open manner, and not go in with an angry accusation or a rude tone. The purpose of your visit is to talk to your neighbours and find a mutual solution, not create a conflict.
Treating others with kindness and respect would most likely result in it being reciprocated, and a solution found that would leave both sides happy.
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