Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Arkansas Bans Smoking in Cars with Young Children; Other States to Follow?

The Arkansas legislature has enacted legislation that prohibits smoking in a car with a child who is required to be restrained in a safety seat (any child who is less than 7 years old or weighs less than 60 pounds). The law calls for primary enforcement (which means that a police officer can pull a car over for this violation alone) and is punishable by a fine of $25, which is waived if the smoker enters a smoking cessation program.

The bill, sponsored by Representative Bob Mathis, sailed through the legislature in two days with overwhelming legislative support and little discussion, at the same time as a bill to ban smoking in restaurants (but not bars) was hotly debated, but eventually enacted.

Similar legislation is apparently being considered in Utah, as well as in New South Wales.

The Rest of the Story

The first part of the rest of the story is that Representative Mathis, who championed the smoking ban in cars, was actually opposed to the smoking ban in restaurants. He is apparently so concerned about health that he wants to intrude into the privacy of one's behavior in one's own car to tell people what they can and cannot do, but he isn't so concerned about health that he wants to regulate smoking in people's workplaces. He is apparently so protective of individual rights that he defends a business' right to make its own decisions about allowing smoking, but not the right of an individual to make their own decision about smoking in their own car.

The second part of the rest of the story is that the Arkansas legislature seems quite hypocritical for banning smoking in cars, but allowing smoking in bars. If it's not a health hazard in bars, then it's not a health hazard in cars, and if anything, the degree of government intrusion inherent in regulating smoking in cars is greater than that inherent in regulating smoking in bars.

In other words, this is public health hypocrisy near its worst. I would argue that banning smoking in cars puts Arkansas into the category of being rabidly anti-smoking. It has become the first and only state to intrude into privacy rights in a person's own car to regulate smoking. Yet the state is so weak on the issue that it isn't willing to touch bars. This makes no sense to me, other than to suggest that the Arkansas legislature has no moral backbone or principles. I think the state legislators, especially Representative Mathis, needs a quick intravenous infusion of chondroitin sulfate.

But the worst part of the story is the law itself and what it reveals about the apparent motivations of the Arkansas legislature and the groups which supported this bill.

Importantly, it's acceptable to do damage to your children's health as long as you enroll in a smoking cessation program. Doing so waives the fine.

If it were really the health damage to the kids that was at issue here, then it shouldn't matter whether the violator enters a smoking cessation program, which has a dismal success rate in terms of actual cessation. The punishment is designed for the crime. And here the crime doesn't seem to be exposing children to secondhand smoke, it seems to be not wanting to quit smoking.

According to this law, as long as you desire to quit smoking and are willing to enter a smoking cessation program to demonstrate that, you are off the hook. You can smoke in your car as much as your heart desires. You're pretty much off scot free, even for multiple violations, as long as you can prove that you're attending a smoking cessation program. But if you don't want to quit smoking or even if you do but you don't feel that a smoking cessation program would be the best way to do so (and it isn't for most people), one offense and you're fined.

It certainly looks to me like what Arkansas is doing is turning the police into lifestyle police. And I mean that quite literally. The police in Arkansas are now being told to turn their attention to the effort to ensure that smokers with young children want to quit smoking. The violation, the police are instructed, is not smoking in a car with kids, but failing to want to quit.

In other words, this bill is really more about trying to alter lifestyle than it is about actually protecting the public's health.

Now I'll spend the rest of this post commenting on the policy itself - is banning smoking in cars justified as a public health policy?

I have to admit that this is a very difficult issue for me, because children are truly captive in their parents' cars, and the acute effects of secondhand smoke can be substantial for young children, especially infants.

Ultimately, however, I do not support legislation that bans smoking in one's own car. And here's the reason:

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.

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