Smoking in Cars Carrying Children: Should it be Illegal?

In the UK this week an amendment to the Children and Families Bill was tabled which, if passed, would ban smoking in cars carrying children. The amendment received an overwhelming majority vote in the House of Lords and must now be considered and voted on by MPs in the House of Commons who will be doing so via a free vote to avoid cross-party influence. The amendment is supported by organisations including; Asthma UK, Child Health, the British Heart Foundation and the Royal College of Paediatrics.

Supporters of the proposal argue that smoke can remain in the air in a confined space such as a car for up to two and a half hours, even if a window is open. Children’s lungs are more susceptible to the damage caused by passive smoking and there is a strong link between second-hand smoke and chest infections, ear problems, asthma and cot death in children. Smoking in cars where children are present has already been banned in some US states as well as in parts of Australia and Canada.

Ministers however remain cautious and are concerned that such a law would be seen by the public as a “blunt instrument” and would prefer to use public information campaigns to get the message across. Prime Minister, David Cameron is quoted as being, “ready to listen to the arguments”.

If the amendment went through, the government would be empowered to make it a criminal offence for drivers to allow smoking in the vehicle in the presence of children, although there would be no compulsion for such a law to be passed. Following the anti-smoking laws which came into force in the UK in 2007, smoking is banned in vehicles used during the course of a person’s work.

The argument for the new law focuses on the need for child protection. Children are not able to decide for themselves how to travel and are not able to request that adults don’t smoke around them. Parliament therefore feels that it is appropriate for the law to step in, even though a private car is obviously a private space and not a public one.

The pro-smoking group, Forest argues that the claims are inaccurate and suggest that the overwhelming majority of adult smokers would not smoke in a car with a child present anyway. They claim that it would be an unacceptable invasion of an individual’s private space and that any such law in practice would be unenforceable because the police have neither the time nor the resources to enforce the law and it would be a complete waste of time.

Public support for the bill however is very strong. People do not feel that public information messages will be heeded by smokers whereas the threat of a hefty fine or penalty points on their driving licence would be much more effective.

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