Tuesday, June 19, 2007

On Parental Smoking, Child Abuse, and Heelys

What does parental smoking have to do with child abuse? Several anti-smoking groups and many tobacco control advocates consider smoking in the presence of children to be a form of child abuse and want this behavior to be banned, fined, and otherwise treated similarly to recognized forms of child abuse.

What does parental smoking have to do with allowing one's child to use heelys? Both are parental decisions - behaviors - that expose their kids to health risks. Secondhand smoke increases the risk for ear and respiratory infections as well as asthma and asthma exacerbation. And new research published in the journal Pediatrics reveals that allowing your kids to wear heelys places them at significant risk of "broken wrists, arms and ankles; dislocated elbows and even cracked skulls."

What does allowing one's child to use heelys have to do with child abuse? Absolutely nothing, I'm sure almost everyone would agree.

The Rest of the Story

The problem is, however, that according to the reasoning being used by anti-smoking groups to support classifying smoking around children as child abuse, allowing children to wear heelys is also a form of child abuse.

By arguing that smoking around children - a behavior that increases a child's risk for certain health complications - is child abuse, anti-smoking groups are advancing the argument (whether they realize it or not) that exposing children to increased health risks constitutes child abuse. Thus, according to the new research, allowing a child to wear heelys, which has now been documented to increase the risk of injuries ranging from broken wrists to broken skulls, would also constitute child abuse. But we all recognize that assertion to be ridiculous.

Equally ridiculous, therefore, is the assertion that smoking around children, except in some rare circumstances, is child abuse.

Why is it, then, that some anti-smoking groups appear eager to single out smoking as the one parental behavior that increases health risks that is to be considered a form of child abuse, while excusing all other parental behaviors and decisions that put children at significant risk of injury, illness, or disease?

I can contemplate several possible explanations.

One possibility is that these anti-smoking groups are so narrow-minded in their thinking and perspective that they simply cannot think beyond secondhand smoke as a threat to childrens' health. Smoking is the only thing that is harming children; thus, it is the only parental behavior that needs to be considered as child abuse.

A second possibility is that anti-smoking groups are aware that there are many other risks to which parents expose their children, but that for some reason, smoking is a unique risk and the only one that constitutes child abuse. While the reasons for such a perspective are not clear to me, it is plausible that these groups have such a disdain for the idea of smoking around children that this is clouding their thinking. But I have to question whether having such a narrow and specific disdain for smoking around children is reflecting some sort of underlying hatred of smokers - a hatred that does not exist toward parents who expose their kids to all kinds of other significant and sometimes even more severe health risks.

I also wonder whether this seemingly unique disdain toward parents who smoke reflects to some extent a view of social class inferiority. Could it be that smokers are considered to be a lower social class, and thus that they carry less respect and more disapproval as a class?

Either way, it seems to me that anti-smoking groups are in a major conundrum. Either they are so narrow-minded that they have lost their sense of perspective on child health and welfare such that they are no longer qualified to be able to make reasonable policy recommendations, or they are participating (albeit unconsciously) in class discrimination and possibly social injustice.

Most disturbing to me is the fact that none of the anti-smoking groups or advocates supporting the idea of treating smoking around children as child abuse have yet responded - substantively - to my arguments. It appears that they have no interest in defending the consistency or integrity of their views and proposals.

In other words, this is a crusade.

Unfortunately, it is a crusade that is increasingly losing its public health and social justice grounding. It is a crusade that increasingly is coming to conflict with basic principles of public health and social justice. It is a crusade that is beginning to embrace the ideas of class inferiority and outright class discrimination.

It is a crusade that I can no longer be a part of.

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