Thursday, July 27, 2006

Lincoln County Attorney Nixes Request to Treat Smoking in Cars with Children as Child Abuse

In response to an attempt by the North Platte police chief and a local anti-smoking group to pursue a new policy by which people who smoke in cars with children would be arrested and charged with child abuse, the Lincoln County Attorney has determined that there are no grounds for doing this.

According to the article: "Lincoln County Attorney Jeff Meyer said that based on Nebraska law, exposing minor children to second-hand smoke does not rise to the level of criminal behavior and advised North Platte police chief Martin Gutschenritter against making any arrests. ...

Meyer wrote that the Surgeon General's opinion specifically stated that exposure to second-hand smoke to a child in 'any' confined space is detrimental. He said if exposure in a car rose to the level of a criminal offense, then exposure in a house, building, camper or any other conceivable confined space would also be harmful. "There is not a Nebraska law that specifically recognizes the exposure of children to second-hand smoke as a criminal act," Meyer wrote. Meyer said to lump the act into the child abuse statute was problematic. He said while most studies conclude its harmful, he could find no study that suggested it was 'probable' that a child's health would suffer harms from exposure. Meyer wrote that history has examples of children who have been harmed and others who haven't after both being exposed. He said no mathematical formula exists to determine harm and it would be impossible to find a medical expert who could testify that the simple act of exposure to second-hand smoke would cause probable harm 'within a reasonable degree of medical certainty.' ... Meyer said he was unable to locate a single specific example of a prosecution for child abuse nationwide based solely on exposure to second-hand smoke. He said consultation with other prosecutors also turned up nothing. Meyer also wrote that courts have made child custody and visitation decisions based on the presence of second-hand smoke but that a check with the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services failed to reveal a single case where a healthy child was removed from a home based on it."

The Rest of the Story

This is truly good news. It shows that those responsible for making sure that what government does is within the confines of the law can help to protect us, and especially our children, from the harm that some anti-smoking groups are threatening to do through their misguided and fanatical policy proposals.

The reasoning provided by the county attorney is similar to the argument I outlined in my earlier post. Essentially, he points to the difference between risk and harm. He notes that while secondhand smoke may increase the risk of certain diseases, it does not produce almost certain harm, and therefore is not to be confused with child abuse, as a number of anti-smoking groups and advocates are doing.

I find it unfortunate that it has come to this. Never did I think that we would need attorneys to save us from the overzealous and overly intrusive reach of anti-smoking groups into the lives of our families. Never did I think that anti-smoking groups would represent a threat of harm, rather than an institution to alleviate or prevent that harm.

But in their fanatical and narrow-minded efforts to reduce risk, some anti-smoking groups are supporting policies that would, in fact, do significant harm. At least for now, the law is protecting us.

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