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Bob Blackman MP: Laws to protect children from smoke in private vehicles reflect true Conservative values

BLACKMAN BOBBob Blackman is the MP for Harrow East

A couple of weeks ago, Anna Soubry MP received considerable media coverage, and widespread praise from medical professionals and health charities, for expressing her personal support for legislation to prohibit smoking in private vehicles in which there is a child passenger. Not only do I share Anna’s views, but I believe that we as a party – a party for whom the protection of society’s most vulnerable is a core principle – have a duty to adopt the introduction of such legislation as official policy.

There are inevitably concerns in some quarters that such legislation would constitute yet another unwanted Government intrusion into the private lives of honest Britons. Others fear it would be the thin end of the wedge, leading inexorably to bans on smoking in all cars, smoking within the privacy of one’s own home, or even an all-out ban on smoking anywhere.

However, while we as a party are right to be cautious about any unnecessary encroachments by the ‘nanny state’, such objections to this particular piece of legislation miss the point. This law would not be an attempt to discourage or marginalise smokers by limiting when and where they are able to light up. This is a child protection issue: a law protecting children from the proven dangers of concentrated second-hand smoke when travelling within the small, enclosed confines of a car. And to assuage any concerns that such a law might be the start of a slippery slope leading to ever more pervasive prohibitions, it is worth reviewing the scientific evidence that make the arguments for this very specific ban – only in cars carrying children – so compelling.

While second-hand smoke presents people of all ages with an increased risk of diseases such as heart disease, COPD and lung cancer, children are particularly vulnerable due to their smaller lungs, faster breathing, and less developed immune systems. The World Health Organisation estimated in 2011 that passive smoking kills around 200,000 children worldwide every year. In the UK alone, a 2010 report by the Royal College of Physicians estimated that second-hand smoke resulted in more than 165,000 new episodes of disease amongst children, 300,000 primary care consultations, 9,500 hospital admissions and around 40 sudden infant deaths a year. Beyond this human cost, passive smoking in children also places considerable strain on healthcare services, just at a time when we are trying to make healthcare provision in this country more cost-effective and better value for taxpayers.

Furthermore, the dangers of passive smoke are particularly acute when children are exposed within the small, enclosed environment of a car. Research published in the journal ‘Nicotine and Tobacco Research’ in 2009 found that a single cigarette smoked in a moving car with the window half open exposes a child in the centre of the back seat to around two thirds as much second-hand smoke as an average smoky pub. This concentration rises to 11 times the level of a smoky pub if the cigarette is smoked in a stationary car with the window closed. In 2012, research by the University of Aberdeen revealed that smoking in a car, even with the windows open or the air conditioning on, creates pollution levels that exceed WHO safe limits. And to illustrate the sheer number of children potentially being exposed to these concentrations of smoke, a 2011 British Lung Foundation survey revealed that 51% of children aged 8-15 have travelled in a car in which an adult has smoked; NHS figures suggest one in five children do so regularly.

‘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, just it was in 1889 when Lord Salisbury’s Conservative government introduced what is widely-regarded as the first ever Act of Parliament for the protection of children, the ‘Children’s Charter’. Protecting the vulnerable is core to our purpose as Conservatives, and there can be few more vulnerable members of society than a child, strapped into the back seat of a car in which an adult smoker, knowingly or not, is releasing toxic smoke into air. Unlike most adults, most children lack the freedom to decide when and how they travel. They lack the knowledge about quite how harmful second-hand smoke can be (even with the window open), and lack the authority most adults have to ask people not to smoke in their company.

Of course it is right that we as a party stand up to unnecessary encroachments of the nanny state, and empower people to do what is best for themselves. However, legislation that requires adults to smoke before or after car journeys in which they are carrying children, or to pull over if they need a cigarette on a long journey as they would if they needed a coffee, is hardly the greatest intrusion into their civil liberties. Research conducted by YouGov in 2011 suggests that 78% of the adult public support such legislation; for the health of our children, it is surely a law that we as Conservatives should support too. 


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