Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Anti-Smoking Group Supports Arrest and Imprisonment of Adults Who Smoke in Cars with Children

According to an article in the North Platte Telegraph, a Nebraska anti-smoking group is supporting efforts to charge adults who smoke with children in their cars as child abusers, making them subject to arrest and possible imprisonment.

Spurred on by the release two weeks ago of the Surgeon General's report on the health hazards of involuntary smoking, the North Platte police department is pursuing the possibility of treating smoking in a car with children as child abuse and is considering arresting such individuals and charging them with child abuse, which is a crime (a misdemeanor) which carries with it a penalty of up to one year in jail and/or a fine of $1,000.

According to the article: "In response to a recent report from the U.S. Surgeon General about the dangers of second-hand smoke, local police officials report they are preparing to crack down on drivers who expose their children to second-hand smoke. 'It is evident when reviewing this report that second-hand smoke around children is the most insidious form of child abuse,' said North Platte Police Chief Martin Gutschenritter. 'We simply did not feel we could overlook it.'" ...

"'With that in mind, we are researching to determine whether law enforcement has probable cause to arrest anyone exposing children to second-hand smoke inside a vehicle,' Gutschenritter said. He added the police department is working with the county attorney to determine if smoking in a vehicle with children present would be considered child abuse. ... 'If you look at the state statute regarding child abuse, and if you look at the Surgeon General's report, we believe that it's a clear violation,' Gutschenritter said. 'The fact that the injury isn't immediate, we feel is irrelevant.' Child abuse is a Class I misdemeanor, which carries a penalty of up to one year in prison and/or a $1,000 fine. This would be considerably harsher than failing to buckle up a child in a vehicle - an offense punishable by a $25 fine."

In response to this proposal, an anti-smoking group - the Lincoln County Tobacco Coalition - expressed its support, apparently stating: "We applaud any type of tobacco prevention initiatives." According to the article, "the Lincoln County Tobacco Coalition supports any efforts that help reduce children's exposure to second-hand smoke because it is a proven fact that second-hand smoke is hazardous to the health of children."

The Rest of the Story

The anti-smoking movement is now literally supporting the "smoking police." They want, quite literally, for the police to go around and arrest people for smoking in the presence of children. In this case, the Lincoln County Tobacco Coalition is supporting a measure that could well result in the imprisonment of adults who puff on a cigarette in a car with children present.

Do you mean to tell me that to prevent the mere risk of some ear infections and respiratory infections, the Lincoln County Tobacco Coalition is willing to support the imprisonment of parents, removing them from their kids for a period of up to one year? You can't be serious. It is far more devastating, to be sure, for children to have a parent removed from them, than for the child to be at increased potential risk of an ear or upper respiratory infection.

It's preposterous that a parent who fails to buckle up their child in a car is punished with just a $25 fine, but smoking in that same car may soon result in a $1,000 fine and possible imprisonment. Failing to buckle a child in a seat belt will almost certainly result in severe harm in the case of a major car accident. And it could result in the death of the child. But in most cases, smoking in the car does nothing more than slightly increase the risk of minor health problems like ear and upper respiratory infections.

It is not surprising to me that at least one police force has taken the bait set by a number of anti-smoking advocates and groups and supported treating smokers who smoke around children as child abusers. But it is still surprising to me that the tobacco control coalition would support such a proposal, rather than condemn it as representing an undue intrusion into privacy and as placing children at risk of real and inevitable harm by allowing their removal from their parents.

This does represent a dangerous intrusion into personal privacy and autonomy. It literally is the smoking police watching over us. It is the beginning of a slippery slope that leads the police right into our homes. There's no real qualitative difference between a private car and a home. So if the police can start arresting me on the spot for smoking in my car with children inside, what is to stop them from starting to arrest me for smoking in my own home?

In fact, there is no justification for them not to do this, if smoking around children is child abuse. And there's no justification for the Lincoln County Tobacco Coalition not to support the entrance of smoking police into the home.

I'll be honest. When I used to hear smokers' rights groups talking about "the smoking police," I thought it was a profound exaggeration, that anti-smoking groups were not supporting anything of the sort, and that the whole argument was basically a bunch of crap. Unfortunately, I appear to have been quite wrong.

Not only is the prospect for the smoking police alive and well, but we in tobacco control are supporting this unwarranted intrusion into the privacy and autonomy of American citizens.

Believe me, we don't want to go there. Not if we are to remain a free country. Not if we are to retain our autonomy as parents.

In public health, we shouldn't be willing to trade definite harm to children for reducing merely the risk of disease. We in tobacco control better learn the difference between risk and harm, and quite quickly. Otherwise, we may end up causing irreparable harm to the very children who we claim we are trying to protect.

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