THE sight of employees coming out of their workplace to light up
a cigarette in some "smokers' corner" is now commonplace. We accept
it as entirely reasonable that people should be free to disregard
the risk to their own health, but required to consider the health
of their colleagues.
We know now that people exposed to second-hand smoke can suffer
respiratory diseases, and asthma attacks, not to mention lung and
heart problems. So opposition to Labour peers' amendment to the
Children and Families Bill to increase protection for children from
such exposure seems an echo of pre-enlightened times.
The ban on smoking in public buildings certainly met strong
opposition before legislation was passed in 2006 (Scotland), and
2007 (England). Allegations of intrusion and over-regulation from
those on the political Right accompanied protests from the tobacco
industry, keen to protect their own interests.
Seven years later, we seem to be having a re-run, with old
prejudices rehearsed and objections repeated from cigarette
manufacturers. The amendment to the government Bill is
straightforward - to ban smoking in private vehicles when a child
is present - and is in keeping with legislation that has gone
before. But it has been attacked as "heavy-handed",
"disproportionate", invading "the private space of individuals". A
spokesperson for the pro-smoking lobby suggests that the problem is
exaggerated: "The vast majority of smokers wouldn't dream of
lighting a cigarette in a car with a child."
Unfortunately, the evidence is against him.A survey last year by
Onepoll found that 68 per cent of smoking parents lit up in the car
with their children inside. The Chief Executive of the British Lung
Foundation, Dr Penny Woods,has pointed out that, every week, nearly
half a million children are exposed to "potentially dangerous
concentrations of second-hand smoke within the family car". And
300,000 of them seea doctor each year because of smoke-related
Apparently, even with windows open, a single cigarette smoked in
a car can create toxic levels of pollution that exceed safe limits
set by the World Health Organisation. Children are especially
susceptible; they face an increased risk of lung disease,
meningitis, and even cot death. No wonder the Chief Medical Officer
refers to second-hand smoke as an "invisible killer".
Yet the opposition continues, with claims that legislation would
be unenforceable, and that educational campaigns would be more
effective. But law and education often go together. Research in
Canada suggests that since legislation was introduced there,
smoking in cars with children has dropped by more than a third.
All law-enforcement faces challenges; but that is no argument
against laws. We pass laws that we believe will shape a responsible
society, and laws themselves change attitudes and behaviour.
Legislation is about making good laws for people. It provides a
framework for securing justice and offering protection for the
vulnerable - both of which are crucial in a Christian vision of
society. In the case of this amendment, they sit comfortably with a
Christian theology of childhood, which respects a child's
vulnerability, dependence, trust, lack of maturation, and need for
safety. Laws communicate the value we puton childhood, and address
their dependence on adults for security and well-being.
Here is the anomaly: our current laws endorse the protection of
adults in the workplace, but fail to protect vulnerable children in
an even more confined space.
Christian ethics challenge whether the health of children is
really a lower priority than that of employees. Thankfully, after
they considered the medical evidence, so did the House of Lords. We
wait with hope that the amendment to the Children and Families Bill
that has now been passed will come into force.
Dr Elaine Storkey is a founder member of Restored, an
organisation which advocates against violence to women.