The debate on smoking in cars was reignited this week, with the House of Lords backing an amendment to the Children and Families Bill that would ban smoking in cars carrying children, and the Labour Party promising to include this ban as part of their manifesto for the next general election if it is not passed.
Legislation against smoking in cars carrying children is increasingly being adopted globally , including in some states in America, Australia and Canada. The World Health Organisation suggests 1% of deaths worldwide, some 600,000, are caused by secondhand smoke; about a third of these deaths are of children. Exposure to tobacco smoke raises the risk of respiratory illnesses in children, sudden infant death syndrome, and pneumonia. Cancer Research UK reports that almost 17,000 children are admitted to hospital in the UK every year due to the effects of breathing in secondhand smoke.
Children are particularly vulnerable, as they have little control over their environments and their exposure to secondhand smoke is especially dangerous. While the home remains the main source of children’s exposure to secondhand smoke, cars also play a significant role, with their small and enclosed nature meaning that they represent a relatively intense form of secondhand smoke exposure. Even with windows open, the levels of smoke and toxins remain significantly higher than in other indoor spaces. In research carried out for Welsh Government into attitudes towards smoking (2012), 82% of respondents agreed that smoking in cars carrying children should be banned.
The proposed amendment banning smoking in cars carrying children would only be applicable in England, as decisions relating to smoking are the domain of devolved governments. In Wales, the Welsh Government has been running the Fresh Start Wales campaign to raise awareness about the risks of smoking in cars with children. At DECIPHer, we have been working with the Welsh Government on a follow-up to our Children’s Exposure to Environmental Tobacco Smoke (CHETS) study. The original study ran between 2006 and 2008 and collected data from around 2000 primary school children from 75 schools across Wales. It investigated children’s exposure to secondhand smoke, and the effect of the 2007 ban on smoking in enclosed public spaces.
The CHETS study found a slight decline in overall secondhand smoke exposure following legislation. However, this decline occurred only among children of non-smokers, and children from more affluent families. A significant proportion of children, particularly those from poorer families, continued to be exposed to dangerous levels of secondhand smoke. Approximately one in five children reported that smoking was allowed in their family vehicle, with exposure in the home and in cars substantially higher among children from poorer families. The study highlighted the need for action to reduce smoking in private spaces as a means of reducing exposure among children of smokers.
We are now repeating the study, focusing particularly on children’s exposure to secondhand smoke in cars. This follows a pledge from the Welsh Government that it will consider the possibility of pursuing a ban on smoking in cars carrying children if children’s exposure to secondhand smoke in cars does not start to fall. The current study (CHETS 2) is hence aiming to assess changes in children’s exposure to secondhand smoke in cars since 2008. To see how this has changed, we are revisiting the schools from the first round of the study.
It’s a very exciting time, with our fieldwork starting next week and running until the end of March. We will be visiting schools across the length and breadth of Wales to collect data through questionnaire surveys, and hope that the findings we report in the summer will help inform Welsh Government’s decisions on this important issue.