Smoking rights - and wrongs

Ray CollinsFrontbench Labour Peer Ray Collins on why it's time to consider the impact on children travelling in private vehicles

Today the Lords debate Lord Ribeiro’s Private Member’s Bill to prohibit smoking in private vehicles in England when children under the age of 18 are present. Since July 2007, it has been illegal to smoke in virtually all enclosed public spaces and workplaces. In May of that year I had my last cigarette and whilst I have stopped I still define myself as a smoker. In my life I have had two periods of 8 years each of ‘not smoking’. I am now in my third and final period of doing so.

For long periods I continued smoking, despite being aware of the dangers to my health. True there were times when I really enjoyed a cigarette (especially after a meal, with a cup of coffee) but I knew the real reason I smoked was because I was hooked. For me, the addiction meant that one cigarette smoked always led to more. Even the medical evidence was something I managed to put to the back of my mind. When my doctor said I had a 20% chance of a heart attack if I continued smoking, I convinced myself that it meant I had an 80% chance of not having one. Not bad odds I thought.

Whilst I may have kidded myself about the risks and dangers of smoking, it was not something I ever thought I should impose on others. However the car was my space and I always thought an open window would suffice. I didn’t really appreciate the harm I could have caused to passengers, especially nieces and nephews. I now know different.

Research has shown that a single cigarette smoked in a moving car with the window half open exposes a child in the centre of the back seat to around two thirds as much second-hand smoke as in an average smoke-filled pub. Levels increase to over eleven times those of a smoky pub when the cigarette is smoked in a stationary car with the windows closed. Meanwhile, the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health has found that smoking in cars continues to be dangerous even after the cigarette is extinguished.

Children are particularly vulnerable to second-hand smoke, as they have smaller lungs, faster breathing and less developed immune systems, which make them more susceptible to respiratory and ear infections triggered by passive smoking.

I thought most people now understood it is bad to smoke in confined spaces. Even the smokers’ lobby group Forest accepts this. They say it's inconsiderate at least, and where children are concerned it's probably best to err on the side of caution – or, as some would say, courtesy.

Forest still don’t accept the medical evidence but are they right about people understanding the need to err on the side of caution when it comes to having children in the car? Well, according to a survey in 2010 conducted by the British Lung Foundation, 51% of children aged 8-15 said they had at some point been exposed to cigarette smoke when confined in a car.

Clearly we need to do more to raise awareness of the dangers of secondary smoke. Yet can Ministers really believe that a one off publicity campaign will be enough to protect children when so many are still subject to the fumes of others?

The debate over Lord Ribeiro’s Bill will hear both practical and ethical issues as to why we should not extend smoke free legislation to cover private vehicles. The practical issues are primarily about the difficulties in enforcement. Unlike the current ban, it can hardly be left to public health officials to police. The ethical issues will no doubt focus on the potential infringement of the privacy of the vehicle user. But can this civil liberties argument ever outweigh the harm to others in the car? Some might argue that while adults can exercise the right not to travel in the car children will rarely be in that position.

Can a car being driven along a public road really be described as a private space? In the interests of public safety we already accept restrictions on what people can do or not do whilst driving. Surely holding a lit cigarette is as dangerous as holding a mobile phone?

Since 2007 vehicles used by more than one person for the purposes of work, paid or unpaid, whether travelling in the vehicle at the same time or not, are required by law to be smokefree. Shouldn’t that right be extended to children?

Lord Ray Collins of Highbury is a frontbench Labour Peer in the House of Lords

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