According to an article in The State, lawmakers in South Carolina are promoting legislation to ban smoking in cars with children on the grounds that children have the right to breathe clean air, and therefore, to be protected from secondhand smoke exposure from their parents.
The legislation in question would ban smoking in cars with children ages 9 and under. The fine for violation of the law would be $100. The article reports that Senator Joel Lourie, one of the bill's lead sponsors, justified the proposal as follows: "Cars where adults are smoking are just smoke-filled traps. It’s just as if the child him- or herself was smoking, and young children have rights, too. They have the right to breathe clean air. It’s not as if the child can get away.”
The article reports that the legislation is being supported by the South Carolina chapter of the American Lung Association.
The Rest of the Story
The problem is this: what if you substitute the word "homes" for the word "cars" in Senator Lourie's justification of this policy proposal?
"Homes where adults are smoking are just smoke-filled traps. It’s just as if the child him- or herself was smoking, and young children have rights, too. They have the right to breathe clean air. It’s not as if the child can get away.”
If one is compelled by the argument that government must intervene in the private car in order to protect the right of children to breathe clean air, then certainly one must also be compelled by the argument that government should intervene in the home to protect that same right. If anything, the justification for interfering in the home is much stronger, because the prevalence and duration of exposure in the home is orders of magnitude higher than exposure in the car. The degree of public health burden (i.e., morbidity) caused by children's exposure to secondhand smoke in the home is far greater than that caused by exposure to secondhand smoke in cars.
Thus, by the arguments of these car smoking ban proponents, there is no valid justification for failing to ban smoking in private homes as well as private cars.
I am still waiting for the groups supporting these car smoking bans to address this basic conundrum. If the primary concern is the health effects of secondhand smoke on children, then why fail to address the primary source of that exposure? If the primary concern is that children have the right to breathe clean air, then don't those children have the right to clean air in their own homes? Why would we only protect kids' right to clean air during the few hours of the day that they are riding in a car? What about the many hours of a day when they are "trapped" in their smoke-filled homes?
What are 3 year-olds supposed to do? Just walk out of their homes and out into the street? Hang with their 3-year-old friends at the local convenience store for as long as they can, before having to return to their smoke-filled homes? How are they supposed to escape the secondhand smoke at night? Call a cab and get a ride to the nearest motel? After all, don't these kids have a right to breathe clean air. And it's not like they can get away.
I would actually have more respect for the proponents of car smoking bans if they were also calling on bans on smoking in the home. At least then the policy would be consistent and they would be standing for the basic principles of protecting the health of our children.
But as it stands, it seems that they are sacrificing the protection of children's health for basically a feel-good policy that fails to address the primary cause of health effects among tobacco smoke-exposed children but allows policy makers to feel good that they have done something to address the problem. To me, that's more politics than it is sound policy. It's politics and cowardice, not showing courage and adherence to principle.
Don't get me wrong. If anti-smoking groups were pushing for smoking bans in the home to protect children, I would not support those proposals because I do not believe the government should intervene in the home in order to regulate merely health risks.
So I'd be very curious to hear how the American Lung Association or other anti-smoking groups which are supporting car smoking bans would address this conundrum.