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Simon Clark: Bob Blackman is wrong. We don't need a smoking ban in cars to protect children.

Clark SimonSimon Clark is director of the smokers’ lobby group Forest and its sister organisation, The Free Society. He is also author of the Taking Liberties blog.

Writing for ConservativeHome on Friday, Bob Blackman MP argued that laws to protect children from smoke in private vehicles reflect true Conservative values. Not in my book, and I write as someone who has voted Conservative all my adult life. Yes, Conservative values include a strong element of paternalism; and, yes, we need laws to protect children from serious harm or abuse, but a ban on smoking in cars carrying children is not one of them.

I would neither encourage nor condone smoking in a small confined space if children are present, but prohibition is out of all proportion to what actually happens in the real world. Today very few adults smoke if a child is in the car. According to the results of a survey conducted in July 2011 using an online panel of 1000 adult smokers, 45 per cent never smoke in their cars, 76 per cent would never smoke if children were present (a further 11 per cent would ask first), and only 13.6 per cent would smoke as normal if children were present.

A more recent study by the UCD School of Public Health, published in the Irish Medical Journal, found an even lower prevalence of smoking in cars carrying children. Researchers observed 2,230 drivers in Dublin (a city not unlike many in the UK). Eight adult passengers and just one child were seen to be exposed to a smoking adult driver. The overall prevalence of smoking was just 1.39 per cent.

In contrast Bob Blackman cites a 2011 British Lung Foundation survey that claimed that 51 per cent of children aged 8 to 15 reported they had at some point been exposed to cigarette smoke in a car. How seriously should we take that figure? Announcing its new tobacco control strategy in March, the Scottish Government included a note about NHS Fife’s anti-smoking initiative. It included the following statement: ‘The I-Don’t project surveyed 1500 students and showed that while students thought 75 per cent of their peers smoked, in reality the number who smoked was less than 30 per cent.’

In other words, surveys of young people cannot be relied upon for accuracy. If a child says he (or she) has been in a car when someone has been smoking it doesn’t mean they have. The reality is probably very different and the true figure is very much lower.

Mr Blackman, who is secretary of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Smoking and Health (which is run by the anti-tobacco group ASH), justifies legislation on health grounds. In fact the health argument is generally based on the most extreme situation – “very heavy smoking in stationary cars with no natural or mechanical ventilation”, according to a 2011 report by CR Consulting, even though “most smokers choose not to smoke in cars with children” and “very few do so without opening a window which can have a dramatic effect on the air quality in the car”.

He dismisses the slippery slope argument but anyone with the slightest interest in public health knows that the ‘next logical step’ is a default setting for puritanical campaigners who are addicted to legislation. If you believe that government must legislate to stop adults smoking in a small confined space like a car when children are present, the ‘next logical step’ is a ban on smoking in the home when children are present. Meanwhile the BMA has already called for a ban on smoking in all private vehicles, regardless of who is in them. If they get their way adults would be prohibited from smoking in their own cars even if they were the only person in the vehicle.

Bizarrely, Mr Blackman tried to invoke the spirit of Thatcherism to support his position: “‘We have a duty to protect the most vulnerable members of our society’.  This principle is central to true Conservative values now, just it was when these very words appeared in Margaret Thatcher’s 1983 election manifesto …” Yes, we have a duty to protect the most vulnerable members of society but I don’t think banning smoking in cars with children was what Mrs Thatcher or her government had in mind. Does anyone honestly think she would have wasted parliamentary time and taxpayers’ money introducing and enforcing such an intrusive law when there are far more important issues to address?

Banning smoking in a private vehicle, with or without children, is a serious invasion of people’s private space. For Conservative voters like me this is a worryingly step because it represents a new and disturbing political doctrine – lifestyle socialism – in which the state micro-manages people’s private lives to a degree that would have been inconceivable a few decades ago.

Whatever happened to Conservative values such as tolerance and common sense? Whatever happened to the party that advocated less state intervention and more personal responsibility? Education is better than coercion because the state should impose itself on individuals only in extremis. If Bob Blackman believes a ban on smoking in cars with children represents ‘true Conservative values’ I worry for the future of the party. But then I’m only a lifelong Conservative voter, and my opinion doesn’t seem to matter any more.


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