Thursday, April 26, 2007

New Jersey Town Bans Smoking in Cars with Kids; Feel-Good Law Would Do Little to Protect Public's Health But Would Interfere with Parental Autonomy

The town of Keyport (New Jersey) on Tuesday enacted an ordinance banning smoking while in a vehicle with a child. The offense will be a secondary one, meaning that police cannot pull someone over for smoking in a car. However, if a person is stopped for another motor vehicle infraction (such as speeding), he or she could be given an additional citation for smoking in the presence of a child. The fine for this violation is $75.

The town's mayor stated that the law is not intended to protect children from secondhand smoke, but is simply intended to make a statement: "'We're not trying to use the power of the motor-vehicle system to punish people into behaving the way we want them to,' Mayor Robert Bergen said. 'This ordinance is really intended to be a positive public policy statement about the need to take care of our kids.'"

The mayor added: "'The Surgeon General's report clearly documents the dangers of secondhand smoke, particularly on young people,' he said. 'It's really not good for children.'"

Not everyone is happy with the new law. According to an Associated Press article: "Audrey Silk, the founder of a New York smokers' rights group, says Keyport is overstepping its authority. 'A car is an extension of your personal property,' said Silk, whose group, NYC Clash, stands for Citizens Lobbying Against Smoker Harassment and is active in New Jersey. 'For the government to regulate what you can do in your own private property, everybody should be afraid of that.'"

The Rest of the Story

The rest of the story is that the mayor has essentially admitted that the law is not intended to protect children from secondhand smoke, but simply to harass smokers about this particular health risk to which they are exposing their children. He stated that Keyport is not trying to get people with kids not to smoke in cars. What it is trying to do, apparently, is to send a statement to smokers who do smoke in cars with children so that they feel bad that they are not taking care of their kids.

The lack of any sincere intention on the part of the Keyport policy makers to actually reduce children's exposure to secondhand smoke is evidenced by the fact that they chose to make this a secondary - and therefore unenforceable - offense. Without the ability to stop people for violating the law, it lacks any teeth, and therefore will - like almost all other secondary traffic offenses - be ignored.

If the true intention of the Borough Council is to protect children from secondhand smoke, then it should have simply banned smoking around children, period. Most secondhand smoke exposure of children occurs in the home, not in cars. So if your true intent is to protect kids and their health, it makes little sense to ban smoking in cars but not homes with children present.

The fact that the Council failed to protect kids in the home and at the same time, essentially made the protections for kids in cars meaningless, suggests to me that the true intention is not really to protect kids after all. Instead, it appears to be a feel-good law that allows the policy makers to feel good about themselves for making a statement (albeit a meaningless one), but without actually having to confront the real issue by tackling the problem of smoking in the home.

Typical politicians! All talk and no action. Talk the talk, but not willing to walk the walk.

Frankly, the apparent intent of this law is to harass smokers and make them feel guilty about smoking around their kids in the car, but without actually changing their behavior. What the Keyport Borough Council is saying is: "You can smoke around kids if you want to, but we're going to make sure that you feel bad about it."

That's fine, but why not make parents also feel bad about feeding their kids fast food from McDonalds four days a week? Why not also make parents feel bad about not breastfeeding their infants? Why not make parents feel guilty for allowing their kids to drive a car before they are 18 years old. Why not make parents feel like they are not taking care of their kids if they allow them to play hockey?

The mayor is right. Smoking in a car is not good for children. But neither is feeding them junk food day after day, letting them risk life-threatening injury by getting pummeled into hard boards on ice, or letting them ride with their friends at probably too high a speed in a car.

The Borough Council could have made a statement about any of these choices that parents make that increase health risks for children. But they didn't. Instead, they singled out smoking. And not even all smoking. Just smoking in a car. Why?

The reason, I believe, is that it turns their stomach to think about parents smoking in a car with children. But it doesn't turn their stomach to think about parents not breastfeeding their kids. It doesn't turn their stomach to think about parents allowing their kids to drive a car. It doesn't turn their stomach to think about parents taking their kids to McDonalds four days a week?

So the really interesting question, then, is why it turns their stomachs to think about parents subjecting their kids to one health risk, but not to any other (equally, or more dangerous) health risks?

The only answer that is apparent to me is that there is some hatred of smokers. They are an easy target to pick on in terms of making a statement about "healthy" parenting. So politicians appear to be using smokers to bolster their own sense of good (they can claim that they are protecting the public's health) without actually having to confront the real issue (smoking in the home).

I agree completely with Audrey Silk. We should be afraid of this invasion of parental autonomy. Especially because it is coming without any substantial evidence that it will greatly protect the public's health. If the express intent of simply making a statement is all that it takes for policy makers to interfere with parental autonomy to this degree, then I think we should be scared.

While it may feel good for the policy makers, it does little (if anything) to protect kids, it distracts attention from the real issue at hand, and it represents an unjustified intrusion into parental autonomy.

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