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Nanny state, or common sense?

14 February 2014

A proposed smoking ban is reviving old arguments, says Elaine Storkey

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 illnesses.

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.

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