Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Bangor City Council Bans Smoking in Cars with Children

The Bangor City Council Monday night approved a measure that bans smoking in cars when anyone under age 18 is present. The ordinance was amended to make the violation a primary, rather than secondary offense, meaning that the police are charged with the responsibility of pulling over any car with a minor in which smoking is occurring.

Bangor becomes the first municipality to enact such a law. Two states - Louisiana and Arkansas - have passed car smoking bans and similar bills are under consideration in California, Connecticut, and Maine.

According to an Associated Press article, one councilmember who supported the ordinance compared smoking in a car with children to deliberately trying to kill your child: "People who smoke with children present in the confined space of a car or truck might as well be deliberately trying to kill those children, said City Councilor Patricia Blanchette, who is a smoker. 'Let's step up to the plate and lead; our children are worth the fight,' she said."

A number of speakers at the hearing did testify in opposition to the measure. According to the Bangor Daily News: "Aaron Prill of Bangor said the ordinance was a "feel-good option" that was not intended to protect children but to "moralize" against smokers. ... Children are exposed to more smoke in their homes than in cars, said Eugene Savoy of Davis Road in Bangor. ... Councilor Susan Hawes said police should devote their energies to more important issues, and that there's already too much government intervention in residents' lives."

The Rest of the Story

What this story demonstrates, ironically, is precisely the opposite of what Councilmember Blanchette suggests. Rather than stepping up to the plate and leading to protect children from a behavior that is apparently tantamount to intentionally killing them, the Bangor City Council has cowardly refused to address the issue and instead, decided to allow kids to apparently continue to die from secondhand smoke.

If Councilmember Blanchette is correct and exposing a child to secondhand smoke is tantamount to deliberately trying to kill them, then how can she possibly justify allowing parents to attempt to kill their kids by exposing them, day in and day out, for hours and hours, to secondhand smoke in the home?

If Councilmember Blanchette truly feels that it is her responsibility to step up to the plate and lead and that "our children are worth the fight," then how can she possibly justify not stepping up to the plate and protecting kids from secondhand smoke in the home, which is by far the primary source of secondhand smoke exposure for kids?

Apparently, the Bangor City Council is not willing to step up to the plate and apparently, our children are not worth the fight.

Because that is essentially the message that the City Council has sent. Our children are only worth the fight when it is politically easy to protect them. To protect them from short and infrequent exposures to secondhand smoke, the Council will step up to the plate. However, to deal with the real cause of tobacco smoke-related childhood illness - home exposure - the Council decided to do nothing.

If the Bangor City Council was truly sincere about its desire to protect children, it would have protected children. If secondhand smoke is truly the threat that the Council claims it is, then it would have acted to protect children from that threat. And to protect children from that threat, you have to protect them from secondhand smoke exposure in the main place where they are exposed - the home.

Apparently, the Bangor City Council does not have the fortitude to put its actions where its mouth is. They can talk the talk, but they're not willing to walk the walk.

Sure - it sounds great that the Council is stepping up to the plate and doing something to protect the children, but the truth is that the overwhelming bulk of secondhand smoke exposure among Bangor's children occurs inside the home.

I am very anxious to hear the Council's justification for failing to protect children from a hazard in the home which they themselves have admitted is essentially equivalent to intentional efforts to kill those children.

Obviously (at least to those familiar with my commentary), I am not suggesting that banning smoking in the home is an appropriate policy. What I am pointing out is that the Bangor City Council's action is a politically correct, feel-good, and cowardly measure that allows them to talk about how deadly secondhand smoke in cars is and makes them feel like they have done something to protect children from this life-threatening hazard, when in fact, they have actually done little to protect the public's health and ironically, have decided to allow parents to, in the Council's own words, intentionally attempt to kill their children in their own homes.

There is only one way out of this mess. And that is to argue that it is not appropriate for government to interfere with parental autonomy - that we as a society tend to give parents the autonomy to make their own decisions about health risks to which their children are exposed - and therefore, that the Council cannot ban smoking in the home. However, if that is the case, then the same reasoning applies to banning smoking in cars for the purpose of protecting kids from secondhand smoke exposure.

In other words, the Bangor City Council has put itself into a huge quandary. It has made a decision that the interest in protecting kids from the health risks of secondhand smoke justifies government intrusion into the private space of its citizens - their private cars - and that it also justifies removing parental autonomy to make decisions regarding exposures that affect their childrens' health risks. Thus, the Council can no longer argue that there is anything stopping them from banning smoking by parents in the home when children are present. Any failure to do so is now merely political cowardice. Or - perhaps - a lack of sincere concern over the health of the city's children. The concern seems to be restricted to kids exposed in a car, but kids exposed in the home are not deemed worthy of health protection.

This is precisely why this ordinance is so dangerous. Once we as a society decide that we are willing to invade the privacy of personal space (homes and cars) and interfere with parental autonomy in decision-making merely in order to address behaviors that increase the risk of illness, we have removed the last barrier from the complete intrusion of the government into all aspects of our personal lives. There is hardly anything that we do, or a decision that we make, that does not in some way affect our health risks. Every aspect of our behavior, and every decision we make, could (and should) be subject to government regulation once we break down this barrier of invading privacy and removing autonomy regarding behaviors that merely affect health risks.

On this smoking policy issue, I agree with the opponents to the ordinance. This is largely a feel-good measure. It does little to protect the health of Bangor's children. The only smoking ban that would actually reduce the incidence of secondhand smoke-related illness among the children of Bangor is a ban on smoking in the home.

I do think that this is largely an effort to moralize against smokers. I can think of no other parental behavior that puts children at a small increased risk for illness that the Bangor City Council has banned. Why single out smoking in cars? It does make you think that this is largely an effort to simply send a message to smokers. But why not send a message to parents who feed their kids fat-laden french fries every day? Or parents who expose their kids to hours upon hours of secondhand smoke in the home, for that matter?

I also agree that the Bangor police department has more important things to do than pull cars over because someone is smoking.

The upshot of Bangor's new policy is that smokers with kids are going to become fearful of being seen smoking in public. Instead of risking public shame and humiliation, they are going to confine their smoking to the privacy of their own homes - and that truly is going to represent a health risk for children. In fact, this measure could well make the problem of childhood exposure to secondhand smoke worse rather than better.

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