Tuesday, January 22, 2008

IN MY VIEW: Why Washington State Anti-Smoking Groups' Support of Car Smoking Ban Bill is Hypocritical

In yesterday's post, I criticized the support of proposed car smoking ban legislation in Washington State by three anti-smoking groups: the American Cancer Society, American Heart Association, and American Lung Association. My chief criticism of these groups is that their position on these bills is hypocritical. Here, I explain in further detail why I find the action of these groups to be hypocritical.

First, a critical point about the legislation is that it makes smoking in a car with children a secondary offense. This means that a car cannot be pulled over if someone is smoking and children are present. A citation can only be given if a car is pulled over for some other reason, and incidentally, someone is found to be smoking with a child present.

The sponsor of the House bill claimed that its purpose was to protect children who are "reeking of tobacco and coughing of asthma." More generally: "The proposals are aimed at protecting kids from secondhand smoke, which has been linked to asthma, cancer and other ailments."

The Rest of the Story

There are two reasons why the anti-smoking groups' support of this legislation is hypocritical.

First, if the problem of secondhand smoke exposure of children is really as terrible as these groups make it out to be, then why in the world would they support a bill that specifically does not allow for the enforcement of the law? If kids are truly reeking of tobacco and coughing of asthma, then what sense does it make to tell the police: "If you see a kid in a car who is coughing of asthma because she is suffocating in smoke, you can't do anything about it."

I believe it is hypocritical to say, at the same time:

1. Kids are suffering in cars due to secondhand smoke and the government must intervene to protect those kids; and

2. Kids are not suffering so much that we have to actually enforce the law intended to protect them.

I find that to be a highly hypocritical stance. Make up your minds. Is the problem severe enough so that we have to intervene into parental autonomy and privacy? If so, then have the courage to support the enforcement of the law. Passing the law itself may make these groups feel good, but without the ability to enforce the law, the evidence shows that these laws will not be effective.

For example, the experience with secondary enforcement of seat belt laws is quite dismal. The National Highway Traffic and Safety Administration has made it a legislative priority to wipe out all the state secondary enforcement laws and replace them with laws that actually have some teeth: primary enforcement laws.

Second, these groups' stance is hypocritical because the primary and overwhelming dominant source of morbidity among children due to their parents' smoking is secondhand smoke exposure in the home, not the car. The duration of tobacco smoke exposure in cars is absolutely dwarfed by exposure in the home. Exposure in the home, not the car, is the primary source of the childhood morbidity that is attributable to parental smoking.

So I find it hypocritical to talk about how criminal it is for parents to expose their kids to secondhand smoke and then to support a policy that forbids parents from doing so only in their cars, but not in their homes.

Sure - it may be more visible to people when parents smoke in a car and so eliminating that may make us feel better, but the truth is that it is the exposure that we don't see (in the home) that is causing most of the illness attributable to secondhand smoke among children.

More generally, what troubles me about the position of these anti-smoking groups is that they don't seem willing to stand up for any principles. Everything seems to have deteriorated into a simple game of politics and public image. It appears to me that these groups are more concerned about being able to say that they did something than to actually do something that would offer significant protection to the children who need it the most.

Let me close by noting that it is not the anti-smoking groups' support for this policy - in and of itself - which makes their actions hypocritical. If the groups told the truth, and admitted that they realized that this proposed policy would not make too much of a difference, but that for political reasons they were supporting it as a good start, then I would respect their position (although still disagree with it). However, the lack of honesty and forthrightness among these groups is what truly makes their actions hypocritical. They are saying one thing out of one side of their mouth, and doing just the opposite out of the other side of their mouth.

I'm sorry, but that is the definition of hypocrisy.

As much as I support the general intention of these groups to protect children from secondhand smoke exposure (which I think is an important public health priority), I must call a spade a spade. The actions of these anti-smoking groups are hypocritical.

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