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Should it be illegal to smoke in your own car?

November 16, 2011|By Karen Kaplan, Los Angeles Times / For the Booster Shots blog
  • Drivers should not be allowed to smoke, even when alone in their own cars, according to a proposal from the British Medical Assn.
Drivers should not be allowed to smoke, even when alone in their own cars,… (Shannon Stapleton, Reuters )

How would you feel if the government told you that you couldn’t smoke in your own car?

Perhaps you’d endorse the idea that public health officials were trying to make it harder for people to maintain a habit that increases their risk of developing lung cancer, emphysema, heart disease and a host of other problems. Maybe you’d rejoice that you’d never again be forced to carpool to a meeting with a chain-smoking colleague. You might even breathe a sigh of relief for all the children of smokers who would be able to ride to school, soccer practice and piano lessons without being forced to inhale clouds of secondhand smoke.

And some of you – smokers or not – might be more than a tad annoyed at the prospect of Big Brother dictating what you can and cannot do in the privacy of your own vehicle.

No law forbidding all smoking in cars is on the horizon in the U.S. (where a good many people get worked up about proposals to encourage healthy eating by imposing so-called fat taxes on soda, fried foods and the like). But drivers in the United Kingdom may be restricted from lighting up behind the wheel – if the country’s doctors have their way.

A report released Wednesday from the British Medical Assn.’s Board of Science calls on governments in the U.K. to impose a ban on smoking in vehicles as part of its overall effort to “achieve a tobacco-free society by 2035.” Over there, it is already against the law to smoke in buses, taxis and other public vehicles. Extending those rules to private vehicles could be done in one of three ways, the BMA suggests:

  • The ban could apply only to cars carrying children.
  • The ban could apply to any car with a passenger of any age.
  • The ban could apply to all vehicles at all times. (This is the option favored by the doctors, in part because it would be simplest to understand and enforce, they say.)
Why do they care? One of the primary reasons is to cut down on people’s exposure to secondhand smoke, which is especially concentrated inside a vehicle. “Tobacco smoke contains 4,000 known chemicals, 69 of which are known or probable carcinogens,” according to the 19-page report. Experts estimate that 23 children and 4,000 adults die in Britain every year because of the health effects of secondhand smoke.

A secondary concern is that fiddling with a cigarette is a dangerous distraction for drivers. Police in Britain are already empowered to write tickets for drivers if smoking is preventing them from driving safely.

Smoking rates in Britain are a little higher than they are in the U.S. (the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that 20.6% of Americans were smokers in 2009). According to the BMA, 21% of adults in England are smokers, along with 23% of adults in Wales, 24% of adults in Scotland and 24% of adults in Ireland. Three out of 10 smokers say they sometimes have a cigarette while driving.

Recent polls show some support for the doctors’ proposal – 88% of people in Ireland and 74% of people in England said they were in favor of a ban on smoking in cars carrying children. In addition, a report out last year from the Royal College of Physicians found that 56% of people in Britain support a blanket prohibition on smoking in vehicles.

An all-out ban would appear to be a first, but other countries do prohibit smoking in vehicles under some circumstances. In South Africa, it’s illegal to smoke in a car if any passengers are under the age of 12; five of Australia's six states ban smoking in cars carrying children or teens (different states have different age cutoffs). In California, smoking is not allowed if any passengers are younger than 18.

Children are especially vulnerable to secondhand smoke because they take more breaths than adults, their immune systems aren’t fully developed, they’re “more vulnerable to cellular mutations” and they “absorb more pollutants because of their size,” according to the BMA.

The report notes that the Tobacco Manufacturers’ Assn. (which represents the British tobacco industry) is opposed to a complete ban. They prefer that discussion of health risks focus on issues related to distracted driving, not secondhand smoke.

The BMA report describes the tobacco industry’s position like this: “The proposal to ban smoking in what is a private space is a step too far and an unwarranted intrusion on individual freedeom.” To that, the doctors retort: “It is important to note, however, that this takes no account of the freedom of other individuals to use the roads safely, and for other individuals to be free from the risks posed by distracted drivers.”

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