Children’s exposure to smoke in cars: regulating behaviour in ‘private’ spaces

Children’s exposure to passive smoke before and after smoke-free legislation

The dangers of passive smoking, particularly for children, are well documented. Children exposed to passive smoke are more likely to develop respiratory problems. Passive smoking also causes damage to children’s arteries.

In 2007 in Wales, legislation banned smoking in public spaces such as bars and restaurants. Wales was the first UK country to propose this legislation. In practice, the Welsh Government had to go via Westminster to gain authority to act, meaning that Scotland implemented legislation first, followed by Wales, Northern Ireland and then England.

The main aim of legislation was to protect employees of the hospitality industry, such as bar and restaurant staff. However, a number of groups argued that the change in the law would cause unintended harms to children. In particular, opponents argued that parents would smoke in the home if they couldn’t smoke in bars, exposing their children to more secondhand smoke.

Surveys conducted by DECIPHer at Cardiff University before and after this legislation came into force clearly showed that this was not the case. Children’s overall exposure to passive smoke actually fell.

Evidence from this study in Wales, and other UK countries, showed an increase in adults restricting smoking in homes and cars. Hence, rather than increasing children’s exposure to passive smoke as critics had anticipated, legislation perhaps contributed to a growing tendency for smoking in front of children to be seen as socially unacceptable.

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Do we now need to regulate behaviour in ‘private’ spaces?

Nevertheless, after legislation came into force, a large proportion of children continued to be exposed to passive smoke, particularly in their homes and family cars. This was particularly true for children with a parent who smoked, and children from poorer families. Hence, passive smoking acts as a powerful mechanism for reproducing health inequalities from one generation to the next.Discussions of how to reduce children’s exposure to passive smoke have therefore moved toward understanding how exposure to smoke in these ‘private’ spaces can be limited. This brings with it significant challenges due to libertarian objections to interfering with people’s behaviour in private spaces.

Such arguments can, however, be easily countered from liberal philosophical positions which argue that private behaviours should not be regulated unless they are causing significant harm to others. In the case of passive smoking, the smoker’s right to smoke in their car, for example, is clearly superseded by the child’s right to breathe clean air.

Cars also appear to occupy something of a midway position between public and private, and are already heavily regulated spaces (for example, seat belt use is mandatory). Indeed, there is significant public support for ban on smoking in cars carrying children, among the public and among organisations such as the British Medical Association, who have advocated banning smoking in all vehicles. In England, the House of Commons has already voted in favour of legislation to ban smoking in cars carrying children.

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Is smoking in private places still a problem?

New DECIPHer research has repeated the surveys conducted before and after earlier legislation and looks at how smoking in cars and homes has changed over time. Smoking in these private spaces has fallen substantially. For example, while in 2008, 18% of all children reported that smoking was allowed in their family vehicle, in 2014 this figure had halved to just 9%. The percentage of children living in homes where smoking is not allowed at all increased from 63% to 74%.

Nevertheless, among children whose parents smoke, 1 in 5 still report that smoking is allowed in their family car. Furthermore, children from the poorest families are twice as likely to be exposed to smoke in cars than children from the most affluent families.

Encouragingly, there seems to be an increasing tendency for smoking in front of children to be seen as unacceptable. However, a substantial proportion of children are still exposed to passive smoking, and this remains a potential cause of health inequalities.

Today’s decision to ban smoking in cars carrying children in Wales may help to maintain the momentum of efforts to make smoking in front of children completely unacceptable, and hence eradicate children’s exposure to passive smoke. The Children and Families Act 2014 means that Welsh ministers can, without going via Westminster, introduce regulations to prohibit smoking in private vehicles carrying under 18s. This gives Wales the opportunity to be leaders in UK efforts to protect children from the harms of passive smoke.


 About the author: Dr. Graham Moore is a research fellow at DECIPHer, based at Cardiff University.

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