Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Another Anti-Smoking Group Calls Smoking Around Children a Clear Form of Child Abuse

In a letter published recently in The Telegram (St. Johns), the Alliance for the Control of Tobacco (Newfoundland and Labrador) calls smoking around children a clear form of child abuse:

"High-profile instances of child abuse get attention — and certainly they should get attention — but it is, indeed, time to see smoking in vehicles and homes in the presence of children for what it really is: a clear form of child abuse. A recent report from the U.S. Surgeon General clearly states that there is no safe amount of secondhand smoke. The report indicates that breathing even a little secondhand smoke can be dangerous. Further to this, it states that children are more likely to have lung problems, ear infections and severe asthma from being around smoke, and secondhand smoke causes heart disease and lung cancer. ... The days of ignoring this form of child abuse should be no more."

The Rest of the Story

The major fallacy in the argument that smoking around children is a form of child abuse is that secondhand smoke does not necessarily cause harm to children - it increases the risk of ear infections, respiratory infections, and asthma. This failure by a number of anti-smoking groups to recognize the distinction between risk and harm is a dangerous one, and would lead to us categorizing as child abuse a wide range of parental behaviors - not just smoking.

A second fallacy in the argument is that the intention of the behavior is not viewed to be relevant. Child abuse is not being defined as knowingly inflicting harm upon a child, but as any behavior that increases health risk, whether the intention is to cause harm or not. This failure to distinguish between intentional infliction of harm and any exposure to increased risk is also dangerous.

What the Alliance for the Control of Tobacco is essentially arguing is that any time a parent exposes their child to an increased risk of health problems, that is child abuse. No harm need be done. Even a small increase in risk equates to child abuse.

By that definition, allowing a child to eat peanut butter prior to age 3, which is known to significantly increase the risk of potentially deadly peanut allergy, would be a clear form of child abuse. So would not breastfeeding an infant, which has been well-documented to decrease the risk of a host of medical problems. Allowing a child to play contact sports would also be child abuse. So would placing a child's car seat on the side of the back seat, rather than in the middle (the side locations significantly increase risk compared to the middle position).

Can you imagine a maternal and child health organization coming out and publicly suggesting that failing to breastfeed your child is a form of child abuse? Such a group would be instantly attacked and condemned. So should the Alliance for the Control of Tobacco for this particular statement.

The Alliance also fails to consider the fact that child abuse entails an intentional infliction of harm. If the harm occurs by accident or without knowledge of potential harm, it is not child abuse. For example, if you accidentally leave a bottle of vitamins on the kitchen table and a child swallows them, you will not be charged with child abuse. If you intentionally put a bottle of vitamins on the floor - hoping that the child will swallow them - that is child abuse. Consideration of the state of mind of the parent is critical to the definition of child abuse.

However, the Alliance is defining child abuse in a way that ignores the state of mind of the parent. If you smoke around your child, that is child abuse, regardless of whether you even know that secondhand smoke is potentially harmful to your child.

This, too, is a dangerous argument to make. Can you imagine a health organization calling on all parents who serve their kids nuts prior to age 2 to be treated as child abusers, even if those parents were not aware that this behavior increases the likelihood of serious allergies to nuts? They would be instantly attacked and condemned. So should the Alliance for the Control of Tobacco for this particular statement.

Interestingly, the Alliance seems to exempt from child abuse the intentional exposure of one's children to secondhand smoke produced by other smokers. If you smoke around your children, that is child abuse; however, if you bring your kids to a smoky restaurant, the Alliance is not suggesting that is child abuse. This exposes the weakness of their argument.

The rest of the story is that the anti-smoking movement is treading into dangerous territory. In our zeal to extract revenge on smokers, to punish them, and to condemn them, we are actually setting a dangerous precedent that could completely destroy parental autonomy. If policy makers actually listen to what these anti-smoking groups are saying, it will cause great harm to our children. But it will prevent ear infections!

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