The Washington, D.C.-based anti-smoking advocacy group Action on Smoking and Health (ASH) yesterday boasted about the extension of workplace smoking bans to a new "frontier:" private homes.
According to ASH: "Although ... smoking restrictions have primarily protected adults, states are finally beginning to see the need to protect the most vulnerable and defenseless victims of tobacco smoke pollution -- children -- by banning smoking in private residences, at least in certain instances. 'In appropriate situations, smoking can be banned in private cars and homes where it is necessary to protect young children,' says law professor John Banzhaf of Action on Smoking and Health (ASH). ASH, a national antismoking organization, triggered and now supports the movement to raise smoking as an issue in custody disputes, and has filed legal petitions asking states to prohibit smoking in cars and in homes where foster children are present. In at least 4 states -- Maine, Oklahoma, Vermont, and Washington -- foster parents are forbidden to smoke in their own homes, or in their own cars, when foster children are present. More than half-a-dozen additional states are moving toward such bans."
The Rest of the Story
I do not believe that a legislated approach is appropriate for the problem of smoking in private homes when one's own children are involved (and that includes biological parents, adoptive parents, or foster parents). It is not that the problem of childhood exposure to secondhand smoke is not a serious one, it is simply that I do not think that a legislated approach is appropriate to regulate the otherwise lawful conduct of parents in their own homes.
In our introductory Social and Behavioral Sciences course at the School of Public Health, we teach students that there are 3 basic strategies to intervene to address public health problems.
First is a rational-empirical strategy, which basically means education directed at trying to encourage people to change their behavior.
Second is a normative-re-educative approach, which refers to changing social norms to support healthier behaviors.
Third is the power-coercive approach, which refers to using the law to mandate certain behavior.
We teach students that the type of approach which is most appropriate to deal with a particular public health problem (and it may be a combination of approaches) depends on the particular situation.
Now those who are familiar with my research and my writings will know that I am not hesitant to invoke the power-coercive approach when I truly feel that it is necessary to address a public health problem. However, in this situation, I just don't think that the power-coercive approach is appropriate. I think that we should be using a combination of educational and normative strategies (education, encouragement, and persuasion) to address the problem of children being exposed to secondhand smoke from their own parents.
I think that we are tampering with a sacred line when we start going inside the private home and interfering in otherwise lawful behavior of parents regarding the health of their children. It is indeed a slippery slope.
After all, eating fatty foods can be hazardous to kids as well. Do we prohibit foster parents from taking their kids out to McDonalds or Burger King more than a certain number of times per week?
And there is no question that not having a structurally sound, permanent gate at the top of staircases is a critical safety measure in any home with children. Should we be bringing legal charges against foster parents if they fail to have such a gate? What about window guards? And what about lead paint in homes? That's certainly a serious health hazard with potentially severe long-term consequences. Should there be a law against allowing any paint to chip off the doors in a foster home?
I just think that the degree of intrusion into privacy is too great to justify laws that dictate that foster parents cannot smoke in their homes.
Should we be providing educational programs and other campaigns to intervene and try to reduce or eliminate children's exposure to secondhand smoke in the home? Of course. But should we be legislating it? I don't believe so.
Like the credit card advertisement says: There are some things money can't buy. For everything else, there's MasterCard.
There are some things for which a legislated approach is simply not appropriate. For everything else, there's education and persuasion.