As of October 1, 2015, it is illegal in all of England and Wales to smoke in vehicles in which the driver or passengers are under the age of 18 (except in convertibles). Similar bans exist in certain parts of the United States. Will a national law soon follow?
Second-hand smoke intensified
When someone smokes in the small enclosed space of a car, people are exposed to toxic air that is many times higher than what the EPA considers hazardous air quality, even when a window is down, reports Americans for Nonsmokers’ Rights (ANR). Additionally, the gaseous and particulate components of tobacco smoke absorb into the upholstery and other surfaces inside a car and then off-gas back into the air over the course of many days, exposing passengers to toxins long after anyone actually smoked in the car.
What the states are doing
“Each state decides individually how it wants to handle smoking in cars with children,” says attorney Allison Diercks of the Barry & Carr law firm in South Carolina. Currently, only seven states and Puerto Rico have statewide laws prohibiting smoking in cars with children, and the minimum age of the child varies:
- At age 8 and under: Vermont
- Under age 13: Louisiana and Puerto Rico
- Under age 14: Arkansas
- Under age 15: Utah
- Under age 16: Maine
- Under age 18: California and Oregon
More state laws are forthcoming. An Ohio state senator recently introduced legislation that would ban smoking while driving with children age 6 or younger in the car. New Jersey lawmakers are considering a similar proposal to prevent smoking in cars with children 16 and younger, while Florida legislators aim to stop smoking in cars with passengers ages 18 and under.
In some other states—specifically Alabama, Hawaii, Indiana, Kansas, New Jersey, and New York—laws against smoking in cars with children exist at the county and city levels.
Will the federal government intervene?
The likelihood of such bans expanding on a federal level is slim. “A state-by-state approach will likely be the way this issue will continue to be handled in the U.S.,” says Diercks. She explains that the legislative framework for federal intervention already exists in current drinking and driving laws: if a state’s laws don’t measure up to certain federal criteria, the state is penalized or restricted in how they use federal highway funds. So, “it’s theoretically possible that it will become federally regulated, it’s just unlikely.”
Tobacco treatment specialist VJ Sleight, author of How to Win at Quitting Smoking, agrees. “I would support a national law, but I doubt it will happen.” Sleight explains that 82 percent of the public doesn’t smoke. With such a majority of non-smokers, a national law may be as unnecessary as it is improbable.
“The goal is to educate, not to punish”
Do we really want the government, at any level, monitoring what we do in the privacy of our own vehicles? Beverly Hills psychiatrist and author Carole Lieberman certainly doesn’t.
Lieberman finds it “appalling” that the United Kingdom has laws that regulate what its citizens do in their own cars. “Next, it will become illegal to smoke in your own home if you have children,” she says. “It is reasonable to regulate smoking in restaurants or other public places, but entering into private spaces of families is taking it too far.”
Lieberman explains that we can hope that parents will make good decisions to protect the health of their children, but to make smoking in cars with children illegal is simply too much “Big Brother-ness.”
But according to Kathy Drea, vice president of the American Lung Association in Illinois, car smoking bans are needed.
“Ultimately, voluntary policies fail to protect all children,” she says. “Misconceptions persist about health risks from smoking in vehicles, and smoking in cars continues unchecked…so, the goal is to educate, not to punish. The main objective of smoke-free car laws isn’t to ticket everyone who smokes in a car, but instead to raise awareness and educate the public about the hazards of secondhand smoke.”
Changing attitudes, not laws
The debate is over. The science is clear. Secondhand smoke is not a mere annoyance but a serious health hazard. —U.S. Surgeon General Richard Carmona, July 27, 2006
ANR recommends that “any smoke-free car campaign be accompanied by a strong education effort, stressing the health hazards of smoke-filled vehicles.” Such efforts can serve as a tool to educate the public and help improve decision-making about smoking not just as it affects the smoker but also about the ways it harms other people, especially our children.
The truth is, our nation still views smoking as a bad habit instead of the physical addiction that it is, according to Sleight. “There is no other addiction that kills as many as smoking does, yet we ‘treat’ it as a ‘choice,'” he says. “We need a paradigm shift in our attitude toward smoking.”
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