According to an article in the Contra Costa Times, a California state Senate committee yesterday approved a bill that would ban smoking in cars with children under age 6 present. The bill makes smoking in a car with young children a primary offense, meaning that the police can pull a car over for this infraction. The first violation would result in a warning and subsequent violations would yield $100 tickets. Parked cars or cars located on private property would be included.
Senator Deborah Ortiz, chair of the Senate Health Committee (which approved the bill) defended the legislation by arguing that smoking around young children is a form of child abuse: "There's no excuse in today's society for any mother of any age, or any level of education, to do something which I consider akin to child abuse."
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I think one really has to question whether coercion is the appropriate public health intervention approach to dealing with the problem of parents smoking around their children. This is one case where I think that education and persuasion are appropriate approaches, but coercion is not.
This issue also raises important concerns about the limits of government intrusion into personal privacy and autonomy.
If California legislators ban smoking in cars with children present, then I simply cannot see any justification for failing to ban smoking in homes with children.
I do not see any real difference between one's own car and one's own home when it comes to regulating smoking to protect the health of children. If anything, I would argue that the threat to children from smoking in the home far outweighs the threat from smoking in cars, because although the concentration of secondhand smoke in cars is likely to be higher, the length of exposure in homes is likely to be substantially higher. Moreover, both the overall prevalence and overall time of exposure for children is almost certainly higher in the home than in cars. Many families do not even own a car, but nearly every family lives in some sort of home.
In other words, secondhand smoke exposure in the home is almost certainly a greater public health hazard for young children than secondhand smoke exposure in cars.
So if one is going to support legislation to ban smoking in cars with children, I simply do not see how one cannot also support legislation to ban smoking in homes with children. There is no qualitative difference that I can see between the two, and the quantitative difference would argue for a greater priority on the problem of exposure to secondhand smoke in the home.
Both are examples of the government intervening to protect children from risk of illness or disease due to lawful behaviors of their parents in the privacy of property that they personally own and are not used for business or commercial or any public purposes.
Both involve infringing upon parents' authority to make their own decisions about behaviors that potentially affect the health of their children.
As much as I hate to see children exposed to secondhand smoke in the home because of the potential health hazards, I simply believe that the privacy rights in the home outweigh the government's interest in regulating a lawful behavior that is merely a potential threat
Regulating smoking in the home would open the door to a wide range of intrusions into personal privacy that people would, I think, find highly objectionable. I don't think we want to see regulations that require what parents must or must not feed their kids, how much physical activity their children must have, what their kids can or cannot watch on television, what movies children can watch, or whether or not parents are required to put sunscreen on their children when they go outside to play for an hour.
I therefore view regulation of smoking in cars similarly. I think the intrusion into individual privacy of behavior on their own property outweighs the government's interest in protecting the health of children from this potential health hazard.
So while the issue under discussion may appear to simply be smoking in cars, what is at stake here is something far more significant: what the California legislature is really going to decide in the coming weeks is whether or not the government will step in to regulate smoking in the home, something which for decades, anti-smoking groups have considered to be off limits for our legislative advocacy efforts.
What concerns me is that according to the article, a number of anti-smoking and public health organizations are supporting this legislation. This indicates to me that these organizations would support a ban on smoking in the home.
I don't believe that this battle is going to end in cars. I think that, buoyed by the Surgeon General's alarming warning about the effects of even brief exposure to secondhand smoke, the anti-smoking and public health groups are going to aim directly for the home.