The call yesterday by the British Medical Association (BMA) for a total ban on smoking in private vehicles is a welcome recognition by the country's doctors that this issue should be at the top of the government's health agenda, and at the British Lung Foundation we support any action that would improve lung health. We realise that a blanket ban however, is a vast and contentious issue that is likely to stretch long into future public discourse. Getting government to take action to protect children from passive smoke in cars is a more realisable and urgent objective. It is clear that momentum is gathering on this worrying health issue in the widest sense, but the immediate priority should be children.
Adults choose to smoke, but children are trapped in the confines of a car with no choice over the fumes they inhale. While we legislate to protect adults both at work and at leisure, we fail to protect children in one of the situations in which they are exposed to unacceptably dense concentrations of second-hand smoke. Over half of children aged 8 - 15 say they have been exposed to cigarette smoke in the car. Research by the University of Aberdeen University has shown that smoking in a car exposes children to the same levels of smoke in a busy smoke-filled pub.
Every year over 300,000 children in the UK go to their GP with illnesses such as bronchitis and pneumonia as a result of exposure to passive smoking, an astonishing statistic that highlights need for immediate Government action. In straitened times, the financial incentive for government to take action on the issue is also convincing. According to a 2010 report by the Royal College of Physicians, this cost the Government over £22 million per annum in UK primary care visits and hospital admissions in England.
Alex Cunningham, MP for Stockton North has been a leading political voice on this issue, tabling a Ten Minute Rule Bill which passed first reading in the House of Commons last June. But Parliament needs to take the lead in addressing this. The Welsh Assembly has already committed to considering legislative action if a behaviour change campaign is found to have not worked, and just this week Edwin Poots, the Health Minister in Northern Ireland Assembly agreed to consider action on this issue.
Action has been firmer abroad, with eight out of 10 Canadian provinces having introduced legislation to protect children are involved. Five American states including Arkansas and Louisiana have also judged that individual liberty does not trump child health, and all but one state in Australia agrees.
One of the more reasonable doubts that has been expressed over the legislative option is the question of enforcement, citing the example of the oft-abused mobile phone legislation. There was an insufficient amount of public education on the mobile phones issue before it became a law, in contrast to compulsory seatbelt wearing, which had a comprehensive public education programme. The government therefore needs to thoroughly evaluate the findings from the marketing strategy it has committed to for March next year, and should consider legislation if it has not been found to be effective.