Every week nearly half a million children are exposed to second-hand smoke in their family car in England and Wales. That's the equivalent of almost 15,000 classrooms full of kids being exposed to quantities of polluted air that not even Volkswagen would try and cover up.
However, this could soon stop. From 1 October, after years of campaigning, it will be illegal to light up in cars with children present.
But what exactly does the ban mean? From 1 October it will be illegal to smoke in a vehicle with anyone under the age of 18 present, and both the smoker and the driver could be fined £50. The law applies to every driver in England and Wales, including those aged 17 and those driving with a provisional driving license.
However, this legislation isn't about making smokers criminals. It's about changing people's smoking behaviour so that soon, smoking in the car around children becomes as unthinkable as lighting up in a public place has become since the smoking ban came in.
Some have wondered why this law targets only cars carrying children. Why not all cars? Surely second-hand smoke is bad for everyone? That's true. Yet while the dangers of second-hand smoke are widely known, sometimes people don't realise that exposure to second-hand smoke is especially dangerous for children due to their smaller lungs, faster breathing, and less developed immune systems. And, unlike adults, children often don't feel able to say "stop it" to people smoking in the car.
In a car, the threat is particularly potent: the small, enclosed confines mean smoke and toxins can build up, essentially creating a greenhouse of noxious air. The air in a car consequently becomes more polluted than it would do if someone was smoking in a home or elsewhere, where a child also has the freedom and space to move around.
Many parents who smoke in cars think they can keep their children out of harm's way by putting the air conditioning on, or opening a window. Unfortunately, this just isn't the case. Even when you can't see smoke, many of the toxins released by cigarettes remain in the car - invisible yet potentially lethal - whether the window is open or not.
The list of possible health effects is frightening. Second-hand smoke in children can increase the risk of illnesses ranging from asthma attacks, colds and ear infections all the way through to meningitis, lung cancer and cot death. On top of that, around 300,000 GP visits and nearly 10,000 hospital admissions every year come as a result of children being exposed to second-hand smoke. The problem simply can't be overstated.
The ban on smoking in cars carrying children was passed because politicians recognised that awareness campaigns just haven't done enough to fundamentally change attitudes and behaviours regarding this problem. This law aims to shield children by overhauling smoking habits and culture. Similar legislation has been highly successful in the past: when wearing a seatbelt became mandatory by law, the number of people doing so leapt from a quarter to a whopping 91 per cent. Clearly legislation and awareness campaigns go hand in hand to make real inroads in altering perceptions of what's safe and acceptable.
Some people believe this law won't actually change anything. Well, the evidence suggests otherwise. A similar ban on smoking in cars with children present is actually already in place in a number of US states, Australia, South Africa, Cyprus and nearly all Canadian provinces. All the early data from these countries suggest these laws are significantly reducing child exposure to second-hand smoke, and there's absolutely nothing to indicate it won't do the same here.
Besides, with the health of so many children at stake, there's nothing to lose. If this law makes even one parent reconsider lighting up while their child's in the backseat, that's a victory in itself. As far as we're concerned October simply can't come fast enough. Guarding the lungs of the next generation from harm will be nothing short of a defining moment for public health.
If you'd like to find out more about the ban and exactly what it means for drivers and their passengers please visit www.blf.org.uk/SiC
The ban coincides with the start of Stoptober, a mass stop smoking event. To find out more about signing up for Stoptober visit www.blf.org.uk/Stoptober