Saturday, January 20, 2007

Newspaper Editorial Supports Smoking Bans in Homes; As Car Smoking Bans Spread, Concern Over Intrusion into the Home Should Jolt Anti-Smoking Groups

An editorial in yesterday's The Journal News (lower Hudson Valley, New York State) supports the idea of banning smoking in the home when children are present.

The editorial, written in response to the recent proliferation of laws banning smoking in cars with children present, supports those laws. But it goes further, stating that extending these bans into the home is also justified. Car smoking bans are seen as a good first step, but the ultimate step is clearly expressed as banning smoking in homes with children.

According to the editorial: "Starting today, residents of Bangor, Maine, can be stopped and ticketed for smoking in their vehicles if children are with them. Another case of a nanny state run amok? Not when the party gaining protection is kids - beneficiaries often unable to stick up for themselves.The Rockland County Board of Health wants the county to join the fledgling movement to ban smoking in motor vehicles when children under 18 are present. It seems a no-brainer to protect minors, for whom tobacco is off-limits anyway, from the damaging effects of second-hand smoke - especially as the kids sit in a car, often with little ventilation, as non-thinking adults puff away. In fact, it makes sense to protect all New York kids, not just Rockland's. ...

Second-hand smoke exposure precipitously raises kids' risk of diseases such as bronchitis, pneumonia and asthma. In children, these can kill - making second-hand smoke akin to child abuse. ...

While the home has always enjoyed special protection from government intrusion - police can't enter without a warrant or exigent circumstances - we see little justification for making the family room a sanctuary for those thoughtless enough to poison their kids with tobacco smoke. In any case, the family car is a fitting start."

A smoking ban in cars when children are present was enacted earlier this week in Bangor, Maine. Similar statewide bans are in place in Arkansas and Louisiana, and are currently under consideration in Connecticut, Maine, California, and New Jersey.

The Rest of the Story

The one good thing that can be said about this editorial is that at least it presents a consistent argument. Unlike the proponents of car smoking bans in Bangor and elsewhere, the editorial board is not just talking the talk about protecting children but failing to actually put its actions where its mouth is. The newspaper is taking a strong position in favor of protecting children from exposure to secondhand smoke, and that exposure does not start and end in the family car. The home is a more important source of exposure, as the duration of that exposure is much higher than in a car.

The problem is that the policy the newspaper is supporting represents an unwarranted intrusion into the private home. In an era when the government has apparently been wire-tapping private citizens, we need to draw a firm line to protect citizens from government intrusion into their homes -- particularly, when it comes to merely protecting citizens from an increased risk of disease.

Before going any further, I should make it clear that there are legitimate justifications for government intrusion into the private home. Specifically, there are two.

One is to protect people from immediate, severe, and direct harm. We do intrude into the private home to protect people from physical and sexual abuse. Children, in particular, need and deserve this protection.

But there is a difference between risk and harm, and it is critical for anti-smoking advocates to understand that distinction. Physical and sexual abuse results in direct, immediate, and severe harm to children. It is not merely a question of increasing the risk for some illness or disease. It is an issue of direct harm.

Once we start intruding into the private home to protect children from merely the increased risk of illness, we have crossed a line that should not be crossed. That would open the door to regulating all kinds of risks to which parents expose their children. That justification for intervening to protect kids from secondhand smoke would also justify laws that prohibit parents from taking their kids to fast food restaurants, serving them food with trans-fats, not forcing them to get sufficient physical activity, not putting sunscreen on their kids, allowing their kids to ride heelies, allowing their kids to drive, serving alcohol to their own kids, or using wood-burning stoves in the house when children are present.

The second justification for government intrusion into the home is to prevent the risk of immediate death from life-threatening emergencies, particularly fires. So we have requirements regarding fire safety -- such as requiring smoke detectors, electrical inspections, proper ventilation of wood-burning appliances, etc. These are deemed necessary because failure to take these precautions can lead to immediate death.

Such is not the case with secondhand smoke exposure.

What the Journal News does not appear to understand - and this is critical - is that secondhand smoke is not akin to child abuse because it usually does not involve harm; it merely involves increased risk of illness. Child abuse is behavior that immediately, directly, and severely harms children. Behaviors that merely put kids at increased risk of disease - such as feeding them fast food or exposing them to smoke from wood-burning stoves - do not represent child abuse.

These behaviors might be viewed as stupid, unfair, uncompassionate, and irresponsible, but they are not child abuse. I'm not saying that we should view them this way; I'm just pointing out that however anti-smoking advocates do view these behaviors, they are wrong in equating or comparing smoking around kids to abusing them.

It seems to me that there are two possibilities to explain the proliferation of proposals to ban smoking in cars with children, and both are equally troubling.

First, it could be that anti-smoking groups are just disturbed by the exposure of kids to smoke in cars (which they should be) and want to get rid of it, but they have no intention of promoting banning smoking in homes. If this is the case, then they are being inconsistent in their arguments. They are passing feel-good laws that do little to really protect kids from secondhand smoke exposure but allow them to think that (and say that) they are doing something for the kids. They are taking a troubling step by accepting that the government can interfere with parental autonomy and individual privacy by regulating parental behavior that merely puts their kids at increased risk of disease, but then failing to act to protect kids where the exposure actually causes disease: in the home. The sincerity of our desire to protect kids then really comes into question.

Second, it could be that anti-smoking groups are promoting smoking bans in cars merely as a stepping stone to home smoking bans. If that is the case, then the anti-smoking movement is at least consistent and sincere in its desire to protect kids, but it is willing to cross the line into regulating private behavior in the home to merely reduce the risk of illness. That is a dangerous concept. We don't want to go there.

(Thanks to JustTheFacts for the tip).

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