Protecting children from smoke in cars

Two reports out today have sparked a debate on how best to protect children from the affects of adults smoking in cars.  The cross party group that I chair has called for government consultation on the various options.  The BMA, the doctors’ union, thinks the answer is a total ban on any smoking in cars.

Six years ago Parliament was debating whether to ban smoking in public places.  I was the Lib Dem Shadow Public Health Minister at the time and took part in all of the debates over many months.  Discussion at the time was mainly focussed on the rights of adults and how to protect employees.  In the end the House of Commons rejected the Government’s piecemeal approach and voted for a comprehensive ban on smoking in all public places, including work places. 

Since July 2007 cafes, bars, shops, public transport and all other places open to the public or places of work, including cars and vans, have been smoke free. It was controversial at the time but no sane person now suggests turning the clock back.  Adults at work and everyone in a public place now have the right to breathe fresh air. 

Various other anti-smoking measures have since been implemented or are in the pipe line.  The age for buying cigarettes is now 18.  Vending machines were banned last month – the only place you’ll see one now in Bristol is in our excellent MShed Museum.  Cigarette displays will be covered up in supermarkets from next April – I wrote about this on another blog earlier this week –http://www.libdemvoice.org/stephen-williams-mp-writes-how-to-damage-tobacco-brands-25900.html

Now it is time to consider how to protect children from smoking in cars.  My liberal friends may consider this to be an intrusion into a private space.  I would be wary of laws that cross the front door of someone’s house. But a car is not really an Englishman’s mobile castle (Wales is considering legislation too) as it is already subject to a range of restrictive laws.  Seat belts, baby seats, speed limits, MOTs and so on already restrict liberties in order to protect passengers, other road users and pedestrians.

The evidence of the need for action is compelling.  First, we know that children are more susceptible to the health risks of exposure to second hand smoke.  Asthma, wheeze and other respiratory tract infections are the obvious conditions brought about or exacerbated by second hand smoke.  But exposure also has links to middle ear infection, sudden infant death and bacterial meningitis. 

The risk is heightened in a car because of the sheer intensity of the exposure to smoke.  In the evidence session that I chaired in the House of Commons we heard from Prof Geoffrey Wong of Waterloo University in Canada.  He tested the concentration of smoke in cars for a variety of journey conditions and compared them to levels of smoke in a smoke filled public bar, which mercifully we don’t have any more!   For a half hour car journey with the windows closed the intensity of smoke was 7 times that of a smoky bar.   Journeys like that would have been taking place all over Bristol in this morning’s traffic peak as parents ferried their children across the city to school.  I wonder how many smoking parents were aware of the heightened risk to their children’s health?   The BMA did similar tests and found the intensity to be a wopping 23 times a smoky bar.

So the need for action is absolutely clear.  The BMA wants a total ban.  But for Parliament to contemplate that we have to build the evidence base and get public opinion on board.  The Coalition Government has an excellent Tobacco Control plan – see my blog on 9th March.  Over the coming months I and my colleagues from all parties in both Houses will be pressing the government to consult on the options for change.  Our experience from 6 years ago showed that public opinion and behaviour moved dramatically before the law was changed.  I hope the same will be true as we now debate protecting children from smoke in cars.

You can read the report of the All Party Group on Smoking and Health here:http://www.ash.org.uk/files/documents/ASH_820.pdf