Thursday, September 20, 2007

Utah Car Smoking Ban Proposal Shows Hypocrisy of this Public Health Approach

According to an article in the Salt Lake Tribune, the Utah legislature is considering a bill that would prohibit smoking in cars carrying children under 6 years old. The bill, which is apparently supported by the Utah chapter of the American Cancer Society, would make smoking in cars with young children a secondary motor vehicle offense, meaning that a car could not be pulled over simply to enforce this particular law. A person could only be pulled over for another motor vehicle offense, and then if also found to be smoking, that individual could then be fined. The fine would be $45, but would be waived if the individual enrolls in a smoking cessation course.

The sponsor of the measure - Senator Scott McCoy of Salt Lake City - argued that the bill is needed because: "They [children] are essentially captives in a very small space with deadly smoke."

The Rest of the Story

There are three elements to the hypocrisy behind this public health measure.

First, if it is true that children riding in a car with a smoker are essentially captives in a small space with deadly smoke, then it is also true that children living in a home with a smoker are essentially captives in a small space with deadly smoke. In fact, children spend a lot more time exposed to smoke in the home than in a car. Even when the magnitude of the exposure is factored in, exposure to secondhand smoke in the home far exceeds exposure in cars, and is a much more important source of childhood health problems, including respiratory symptoms, respiratory infections, ear infections, and asthma. So why would legislators aim to ban smoking in cars with children, but to allow parents to continue to expose their captive children to deadly smoke in the home.

The fact that the sponsor of this bill is willing to intervene in the private car because he sees it as a situation where parents are holding their children captive and forcing them to inhale deadly smoke suggests that he should also be willing to intervene in the private home, where children are exposed - to a far greater extent - to deadly smoke.

How can a legislator acknowledge that:

(1) exposing a child to tobacco smoke is essentially holding them captive and forcing them to inhale a deadly gas;

(2) holding a child captive and forcing them to inhale a deadly gas is unacceptable and must be outlawed by the government; AND

(3) we must allow parents to continue to hold their children captive and force them to be exposed to the same deadly gas, only for far greater lengths of time, in the home.

I can follow arguments #1 and #2, but I don't then follow argument #3.

If we stipulate, for the sake of argument, that points #1 and #2 are accurate, then it not only seems illogical not to reject point #3, but it seems almost callous. How can we knowingly allow parents to expose their kids to a deadly poison? Especially when we have acknowledged that exposing their kids to this deadly poison is completely unacceptable and that government must intervene to outlaw it?

The second element of hypocrisy behind this proposal is the fact that the violation is only made a secondary offense. If parents are truly holding their young children captive and forcing them to inhale deadly and poisonous smoke, and we feel this is an important enough problem to regulate it, then how can we allow police officers to turn a blind eye when they see someone committing this violation?

How can we tell our police: we are serious enough about the problem of parents smoking in cars with young children to ban it, but we are not serious enough to ask you to actually enforce this ban unless someone is committing some other traffic offense?

The third element of hypocrisy is this: if someone merely agrees to enroll in a smoking cessation class, the fine is waived. They don't actually have to quit smoking. They just have to want to quit smoking. Or at least to say that they want to.

If we're really talking about parents exposing their kids to a poisonous and deadly gas, then does it really matter what the perpetrator's intentions are? How does the fact that the person wants to quit smoking affect whether or not they committed an offense which warrants punishment?

What if the person had already enrolled in a smoking cessation class, but had not succeeded? Should that person have to pay the $45?

What about someone who went beyond a smoking cessation class and actually used a nicotine patch for several months? Do we fine them?

How about someone who had actually quit successfully three or four times in the past, but just happened to relapse two days ago?

What about someone who feels that it would be more effective for them to quit without a smoking cessation class? If they promise to quit on their own, does the fine get waived?

What if a violator enrolls in such a class, but never shows up? Do they still have to pay the fine? Who is going to track them down? Are the police going to check the sign-in sheets at all the smoking cessation classes in Utah to see who is there or not?

And how many classes do you actually have to attend? What if you realize that this is not going to work for you after two classes? Do you get called in to pay your fine? What if you actually succeed in quitting after just one class? Do you still have to go to the rest of the classes to avoid having to pay your fine? And who is going to keep track of all this? If no one, then what would stop every violator from simply telling the police officer: "Sorry, officer. I was actually just on my way to sign up for a smoking cessation class."

That's the answer for Utah smokers who want to continue imprisoning their kids and exposing them to deadly smoke. If you get pulled over, just tell the police you were on your way to sign up for a smoking cessation class. Then you need not worry about any penalties. Then, while you're at it, tell them that after registering for the smoking cessation class, you're going to go home and imprison your child in the home, exposing them for hour upon hour to deadly and poisonous smoke, and there isn't a damn thing that the police officer can do about it.

By the way: there is a better way. And there are public health practitioners who are really sincere about trying to protect children from secondhand smoke. At least one state health department - the New York State Department of Health - is putting up $5 million to educate parents about the dangers of secondhand smoke and to encourage parents not to smoke around their children. The campaign will encourage parents not to smoke, but will leave the decision up to them. For those who choose to continue smoking, their decision will be respected, and they will merely be encouraged to avoid exposing their children to the smoke.

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