Monday, February 23, 2009

Anti-Smoking Advocates Argue for Banning Smoking in All Homes with Children

In an op-ed column published earlier this month in the Portland Press-Herald, three Maine anti-smoking advocates - James Tasse (Healthy Maine Partnership Coordinator for Healthy Casco Bay), Joan Ingram (Healthy Maine Partnership Coordinator for Healthy Portland), and Toby Simon (Cumberland County district tobacco coordinator) - argue that smoking should be banned in all homes in which children are present.

The piece responds to an editorial which asserted that banning smoking in cars with children is a slippery slope because it could lead to banning smoking in the home. The authors, however, find no slippery slope because they conceptually have no problem with banning smoking in homes with children. They argue: "It is a parent's responsibility to protect his or her kids from preventable exposure to health risks. If the parent fails to fulfill that responsibility, society has a legitimate interest in intervening to protect the health of the kids, and to protect itself from incurring future costs in the form of treatments for asthma, allergies, cancer and many other conditions. Smoking in the presence of children -- or non-smoking adults, for that matter -- is a practice that should be banned in cars, homes and public places."

The Rest of the Story

Here is why the op-ed's argument is problematic: If it is true that the government has a legitimate interest in intervening to protect the health of kids in any situation in the home in which a parent is failing to protect his or her kids from "preventable exposure to health risks," then are a host of parental behaviors which could and should be banned. Each of the following is an exposure to a health risk that falls into the category that the authors argue make it subject to government intervention (i.e., a ban) because parents have the responsibility to prevent the exposure:
  • allowing one's children to eat food containing trans-fats;
  • allowing one's children to eat high volumes of fast food;
  • allowing one's children to play ice hockey;
  • forcing a child to breathe in fumes from a wood stove;
  • applying pesticides inside the home to get rid of pests;
  • using pesticides in children's hair to control lice;
  • allowing a child to smoke;
  • allowing an infant to sleep on his stomach; and
  • spraying an inside window with sprayable wood finish that contains toxins.
If we accept the authors' reasoning with regards to banning smoking in the home, then we would also have to accept that each of these other preventable health risks to which many parents expose their children ought also be banned. In other words, it basically opens the door to the government entering the home and making all decisions for parents about the risks to which they can or cannot expose their children.

This precise argument would justify government regulation of virtually all parental behavior that has anything to do with exposing their children to health risks.

In order to advance an argument for banning smoking in the home successfully, Tasse, Ingram, and Simon would need to provide a justification for why - of all the preventable health risks to which parents may expose their children - only secondhand smoke should be regulated.

Their op-ed does not provide any such justification. In fact, it justifies the ban on smoking by arguing that parents should not be allowed to expose their children to preventable health risks.

While I believe that these anti-smoking advocates may be well intentioned in that their ultimate desire is to prevent exposure to secondhand smoke, it appears to me that their support of this policy requires a lot more careful thought and consideration.

To give them the benefit of the doubt, it may be that they simply have not thought this out and it did not occur to them that their reasoning would support bans on a host of parental behaviors. If, on the other hand, they truly would support the usurpation of parental autonomy by the government, then such thinking is truly dangerous.

I suspect that like many anti-smoking advocates with good intentions, they simply have not taken the time to carefully consider their position.

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