Comment: Smoking ban is needed to protect children

Alex Cunningham was elected as Labour party MP for Stockton North in 2010
Alex Cunningham was elected as Labour party MP for Stockton North in 2010

Smoking in a car with your children present is as bad as taking them into a smoke-filled pub. It should be banned.

By Alex Cunningham MP

Thousands of children across the country are needlessly suffering from respiratory and other diseases directly caused by their exposure to passive smoke – often in its highest concentration within the family car.

So on Wednesday 22 June, I was delighted that my ten minute rule bill calling for a ban on smoking in private vehicles where there are children present was given a second reading.

GPs see over 300,000 children each year suffering from passive smoking related illnesses. This can hardly be helped by the fact that smoking in a car is comparable to exposing a child to a smoke-filled pub. It is unfair that young people should be put at risk of long-term respiratory problems because of the actions of adults around them.

The British Lung Foundation also estimate that passive smoking causes over 20,000 new cases of wheezing and asthma in UK children each year and make a conservative estimate that this costs the NHS £22 million a year in hospital admissions and treatment costs.

My own constituency, Stockton North on Teesside, is ranked 15th in the British Lung Foundation's table of 'parent smoking hotspots'.

In addition, the number of adult smokers is significantly higher than the England average, as are deaths from smoking. More women also smoke in pregnancy than the national average.

In the North East, we are working hard to address the issues including action through charities such as 'Fresh'. We have had some great success.

Smoking rates in the region have dropped from 29% in 2005 to 22% in 2009, a welcome step forward in the fight against tobacco. Fresh however tell me that 84,000 children in the North East are still exposed to second hand smoke in the home, a figure that must come down.

A recent YouGov poll showed that 90% of smokers in the North East worry about the impact of smoking around children and 78% support a ban on smoking in cars carrying children younger than 18 – that support is even higher elsewhere.

When the British Lung Foundation teamed up with Mumsnet to find out the views of parents across the country on smoking, over 85% of them supported a proposed ban on smoking where children are present. This research also showed that 83% of smoking parents said that they would support legislation to protect children.

The science is clear – experts say children are particularly vulnerable to passive smoke, as they have quicker breathing rates. It goes without saying that consistent exposure to second-hand smoke can lead to a lifetime of respiratory problems.

Opponents of my proposal say it is an attack on civil liberties; government regulation forced into our private space. But what about the civil liberties of the children who are exposed to second-hand smoke by adults? We already have legislation which means wearing a seatbelt is compulsory and the evidence shows when that came into force in 1983 seatbelt wearing increased significantly, from about 40% to over 90%.

Thanks to the Health Act 2007 we also have legislation that bans smoking in vehicles carrying passengers in the course of paid or voluntary work, including buses, trains, planes and taxis.

I remember when people were allowed to light up on public transport and that was considered normal; I think most would agree attitudes have changed significantly since then. Similarly how many people would like to go back to the days when our pubs and restaurants were filled with people smoking? Surely a ban on smoking in private vehicles with children present is a sensible next step in the fight against tobacco and the diseases it causes?

Crucially, there is popular support for this legislation. Research reveals that 86% of children across the UK, and 86% of parents support a ban where children are present in the car and a British Lung Foundation petition calling for legislation on this issue has gained over 16,600 signatures.

I am pleased the government is going ahead with legislation to put tobacco out of sight in shops and the government's tobacco plan, published earlier this year, demonstrates an ambition to drive down smoking rates, but they must go further.

I have support from Labour, Conservative and Liberal Democrat MPs and others from smaller parties for my bill and it has captured the public imagination. The UK trails behind countries such as the US, Canada and Australia, where legislation in this area is already in place and evidence from Canada shows it is effective. Surely we should be following in their footsteps? The government should not dismiss calls for a ban.

Alex Cunningham was elected as Labour party MP for Stockton North in 2010.

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