Ask a parent to lock a child in an enclosed smoke-filled space, exposing them to arsenic, tar and formaldehyde, and they’ll inevitably say “no”. Yet one in ten parents continues to do just that.
For libertarians and the tobacco lobby, smoking in cars and at home is the last frontier of freedom. Exiled from pubs, offices and public buildings by “the ban”, some smokers take succour in a cigarette behind the wheel.
The Welsh government has taken a ground-breaking step in banning smoking in cars following other measures that effectively make Wales a bellwether for changes in public policy. Take plastic bag charging for instance – a 5p charge introduced in Wales in 2011 was followed by a 76% fall in usage.
DECIPHer research shows the growing unacceptability of smoking in front of children. In 2008, 18% of all children reported that smoking was allowed in their family vehicle. This year, the figure has halved. And the percentage of children living in homes where smoking is not allowed has increased from 63% to 74%. Indeed, half of children whose parents smoke now live in a smoke-free home, up from only a third.
But almost 60 years after renowned epidemiologist Richard Doll proved the link between smoking and lung cancer, one in five children with a parent who smokes says lighting up is still allowed in the family car.
Interventions like plastic bag charges are described by psychologists as “nudges”, gently steering people towards better behaviour. Wales' car smoking ban is more of a shove – direct legislation to safeguard and protect children.
Cardiff University began working with the Welsh government on children’s passive smoking eight years ago. Wales was the first UK country to propose legislation against smoking in public places, but had to go via Westminster to gain authority to act. Scotland implemented legislation first, followed by Wales and Northern Ireland. Meanwhile, Westminster fought a losing battle against public opinion as it tried to preserve the rights of selected establishments in England to allow smoking.
Opposition is futile
In opposing legislation, the tobacco lobby claimed it was safeguarding children’s health. If parents couldn’t smoke in bars, they would go home and puff away in front of the kids. But in reality, children’s exposure to passive smoke fell after legislation, indicating that smoking in front of children was becoming socially unacceptable. The question of how to reduce children’s exposure to passive smoke then moved towards understanding how to limit children’s exposure in “private” spaces, and deal with libertarian objections to interference in private and family lives.
If you take the view that private behaviours should not be regulated unless they are causing significant harm to others, arguments about the rights of the smoker are easily countered by the child’s right to breathe clean air. In any case, there is wide public support for a ban on smoking in cars that carry children, among the public and among medical professionals including the British Medical Association. In England, the House of Commons has already voted in favour of legislation to ban smoking in cars carrying children.
Following a referendum in 2011 that granted Wales more legislative power, the Welsh government was able to decide to ban smoking in cars without having to go via Westminster.
The new law may prove difficult and expensive to enforce. But it marks an important symbolic step, bolstering the already-popular view that smoking in front of children is not acceptable. And if legislation improves children’s health, it will be a battle worth fighting.