Another small freedom goes up in smoke
Some American states are now banning smoking in cars, as legislators creep ever further into our once-private lives.
When the smoking ban was being discussed here in New York a few years ago, I must admit I argued against it by resorting to the ‘slippery slope’ argument. ‘Next they will be trying to stop people smoking in their own private spaces’, I’d say. Secretly, even I thought I was probably exaggerating a little, for effect.
Apparently not. Bangor, in the heart of rural Maine, has just banned smoking in all cars carrying ‘children’ (which means anyone under 18) (1). Brewer, also in Maine, is following hot on its heels (2). Motor-vehicle smoking bans were introduced in Arkansas and Texas over the summer (3). In Arkansas, the ban is for those travelling with children under six years of age, and violators are subject to fines. In Connecticut, following a ban on smoking in bars and restaurants in 2003, there is an attempt to impose a car ban similar to the one now in effect in Louisiana - where the law applies to children under 13 and there is a $150 fine, or 24 hours community service, if it is a first offence.
It is a sign of our small-minded times when the most exciting thing that politicians can declare is that they have helped ban smoking. In keeping with the mood, Nancy Pelosi, new speaker of the House of Representatives, got off to a flying start by banning smoking in the Speaker’s Lobby just off the House floor, declaring: ‘The days of smoke-filled rooms in the United States Capitol are over.’ And you thought American politicians were lacking in vision…. (4)
Some have been calling for these infringements into our personal space for some time, such as Los Angeles Assemblyman Marco Firebaugh, a long-time supporter of smoking bans (5). In Australia in 1999, Professor Simon Chapman argued that just as governments make rules for health in the home with regard to electricity and building standards, so they should do the same for smoking - for the wellbeing of the occupants, of course (6). Now, as bans on smoking in public places take hold in Hong Kong and France, in addition to Britain and Ireland, it is seen as a ‘fact’ that second-hand smoking is one of the evil curses of our time - so how long before the home becomes the subject of more and more smoking-related regulation?
Entirely without irony, the Hudson Journal declared recently: ‘While the home has always enjoyed special protection from government intrusion - police can’t enter without a warrant or exigent circumstances - we see little justification for making the family room a sanctuary for those thoughtless enough to poison their kids with tobacco smoke. In any case, the family car is a fitting start.’ (7)
Since the declaration by Richard Carmona, the US surgeon general, in June 2006 that the science is definitive and ‘any amount’ of second-hand smoking is lethal, others have sought to use this argument to push even harder against smoking anywhere (8). Yet according to Dr Michael Siegel, a professor at Boston University’s School of Public Health, the surgeon general misrepresented the facts by not informing the public that the findings were based on non-smokers who had been chronically exposed to high levels of second-hand smoke. Brief exposure would not mean a high risk of cancer and heart disease (9). This view is supported by the work of epidemiologists James Enstrom and Geoffrey Kabat, published in the British Medical Journal, who studied 118,000 Californians from 1959-1998, and concluded: ‘No significant associations were found for current or former exposure to environmental tobacco smoke.’ (10)
The New York Times article on the ban in Bangor pointed out that, today, some foster children do not go to see their birth parents because one or both of the parents smoke. The mantra ‘What about the children?’ seems to be used to beat adults, while sometimes ignoring the real interests of children.
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This is an age where politicians are desperate to ‘connect’ with the public, yet that connection can seem painfully elusive. So some politicians, such as Henry Genga in Hartford, Connecticut, a supporter of the car smoking ban, are ecstatic when they feel they have found something popular - especially when the idea came from a nine-year-old child, as the car smoking ban did. As Genga gushed: ‘It’s coming from the young people and you’ve got to listen to the public…this is coming from the public.’ (11)
We all know that smoking is bad for those who do it - but that is a matter for those individuals. Today, we are seeing the rise of a new ethics of behaviour. Unlike the old-fashioned puritans, the modern missionaries declare their holy war on our behaviour under the cover of health and environmental concerns – and if challenged they dangle the kids in front of us as a kind of emotional blackmail.
Mistrusted by many, officialdom seems capable of touching us only by raising fears about our health and the behaviour of others. This is a destructive moment, which could impact on our most personal freedoms.
Alan Miller is director of the NY Salon.
Smoking out the facts, by Rob Lyons
(1) Maine City Bans Smoking in Cars Carrying Children, New York Times, 19 January 2007
(2) Brewer Now Considering Smoking Ban In Cars, WCSH News, 10 January 2007
(3) Laws prohibit smoking around children, USA Today, 28 November 2006
(4) Pelosi Bans Smoking Near House Floor, Guardian, 10 January 2007
(5) Britain Gives Up Smoking, The Times (London), 15 February 2006
(6) Health experts push for smoking ban in cars, ABC Australia, 14 October 1999
(7) A plan to give kids a smoke-free ride should go statewide, Hudson Journal, 19 January 2007
(8) US Surgeon General Richard Carmona, Report Secondhand Smoking, 27 June 2006
(9) Dr Michael Siegel’s blog
(10) Environmental tobacco smoke and tobacco related mortality in a prospective study of Californians, 1960-98 , British Medical Journal, May 2003
(11) Lawmaker Proposes Smoking Ban for cars carrying children, Boston.com, 5 January 2007