Smoking in cars: should we be policing parenting?

MPs recently voted on whether smoking should be allowed in vehicles with children present. 

They came out in favour of a ban by 376 votes to 107, empowering (though not compelling) ministers to make smoking in vehicles with children present a criminal offence.

A fine of £60 has been proposed; no other penalties have been mooted – yet. 

Is this decision was viable, or a necessity, however? Baroness Finlay of Llandaff, a former president of the Royal Society of Medicine, said: “A child in the back seat is effectively imprisoned in the vehicle for their own safety. Whatever adults do they have no control over.”

Backing up Baroness Finlay, the Action on Smoking and Health (ASH) Group has compiled evidence from various research projects and states: “Levels of second-hand smoke in cars can be extremely high because of the restricted area in which the smoke is circulated and can reach levels far higher than those experienced in buildings.”

But, however considerate protecting children from being exposed to fumes may seem, legislating against smoking in cars may be a short-sighted answer.

Problems immediately arise when it comes to the regulation and administration that accompany this offence.

The limited resources of the police alone will amount to a passive approach to enforcing the ban. Time restrictions, short staffing, and other pressing policy issues will not see this offence high on their priority list. Additionally, the authorities may feel uncomfortable essentially policing in the name of parenting.

If a charge reaches the Crown Prosecution Service, they will have to be provided with evidence by way of a witness disposition. However, if the witness testimony were to be contested, then the matter would escalate to a hearing. This would further clog up the system, creating cost, requiring court personnel and generally wasting time, money and resources for what could be considered a petty offence.

While there is an air of decency about the desire to prevent children from being exposed to smoking fumes, there may be more prudent ways of achieving this.

A good start would be for better education on the subject, an idea supported by the former surgeon and Tory peer Lord Ribeiro, who opposed the bill, stating that it would be better for the public “to be educated about the harm that second-hand smoke can do to young children’s lungs.” Educating parents as to the effects of second hand smoke on children’s lungs while in a vehicle is far less ham-fisted approach, and more financially sensible.

It is also less intrusive.

Simon Clark, director of the smokers’ lobby group Forest, says smoking in cars with children is “inconsiderate”, but there is “a line the state shouldn’t cross when it comes to dictating how people behave in private places.”

Ministers have already legislated to put cigarettes behind shop counters from April 2015. If enacted, the new ban could be introduced at the same time. However, we should be wary, because legislating like this raises the question: where will it stop? Will smoking parents eventually be required to stop smoking in their homes?

David Ashton is a recent LLB graduate.