Why we need to protect children from second-hand smoke
Yesterday was a reassuringly positive day. I tabled the second reading of my Smoke-free Private Vehicles Bill, which aims to legislate against people smoking in the car when children are on board. Whilst no peer voiced objection to the principle that children need protection, there was some debate over the method through which this could be achieved.
Before diving into the debate surrounding behaviour change versus nanny state, let’s review the problem.
Children are particularly vulnerable to second-hand smoke as they have smaller lungs, faster breathing, and less developed immune systems. These factors make them more susceptible to respiratory and ear infections triggered by second-hand smoke.
Second-hand smoke results each year in more than 165,000 new episodes of disease of all types amongst children, 300,000 primary care consultations, 9,500 hospital admissions and around 40 sudden infant deaths. And all of this comes at a considerable economic cost. The direct annual UK health cost is more than £23 million in children’s primary care visits, asthma treatment and hospital admissions.
The scale of the issue is profound. In a British Lung Foundation survey in 2011, 1,000 children aged eight to 15 were asked if they had, at some point, been exposed to cigarette smoke in a car. Worryingly, more than half of respondents, 51%, said they had.
And because the car is a confined space, smoking in the car exposes children to high concentrations of second-hand smoke. Research has shown that a single cigarette smoke 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 an average smoke-filled pub.
There can be no dispute of the facts. Second-hand smoke is detrimental to children’s health, especially when placed in the confines of a car.
In the lead up to this bill being tabled, I spoke with a woman named Sharon. She told me about how smoking had impacted her life and the life of her son Ben. Sharon started smoking at the 14 and only briefly gave up when she was pregnant. Her mother was then diagnosed with a terminal illness and due to stress, Sharon started smoking again. She continued to smoke during Ben’s childhood, even after Ben was diagnosed with asthma at three years old.
Sharon remarked though that she would never have dreamed of taking Ben into a pub, as before the public smoking ban came in three years ago, it was a murky, smoke-filled environment which was clearly unhealthy for a growing boy.
“You can see the smoke in the room,” she told me, “but you can’t see the smoke in your car. The window is open and the smoke appears to go”. We know that this is not the case.
The Department of Health recently ran a campaign, to raise awareness of this very issue – the dangers of invisible smoke and the impact this can have on children’s health. Its aim was to reach parents like Sharon, who didn’t know that cigarette smoke has harmful particulates which linger in the air and are breathed in by children.
Educational campaigns and awareness raising are a crucial part in changing behaviour and the bill isn’t a criticism of this campaign. Rather legislation alongside future and existing educational campaigns is the best possible means of achieving its objectives of making everyone aware of the health risks of smoking in cars with children and of urging responsible behaviour.
Efforts to encourage seatbelt use in cars were most successful when legislation was introduced. According to World Health Organisation figures, seatbelt wearing rates increased in the UK from 25% to 91% after legislation was introduced alongside awareness campaigns.
The Smoke-Free Private Vehicles Bill is a public health bill, aimed at protecting children. It isn’t here to stigmatise smokers, chip away at our civil liberties or promote a nanny state. What is more important to you, the freedom to smoke in your car when a child is present, or the freedom being given back to children who will no longer be forced to breathe in second-hand smoke?
The way we protect children will of course continue to be debated. But let’s not lose sight as to why we need to protect children: they’re vulnerable; they’re unable to speak for themselves; they’re buckled into the car without anywhere to go and the damage done by second-hand smoke will stay with a child their entire life. Safeguarding the health of our children is one of most important responsibilities as a society and if legislation and education can offer the best possible chance of this, it would be neglectful of us not to pursue these options.Tagged in: asthma, British Lung Foundation, cancer, children, health, lung health, nhs, second-hand smoke, smoke-free private vehicles bill, smoking, smoking in cars
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