Smoking in cars: why the state shouldn’t play parent

Anti-smoking zealots celebrated yesterday, as the government introduced a new law for England and Wales banning smoking in cars with children present. Under the legislation, drivers will face a £50 fine if they are caught smoking with kids in the back – even if the sunroof is open and the windows are down.

This ban is a blatant attack on parental authority. The secondhand-smoke panic has encouraged the idea that some parents are willfully harming their children. But the opposite is true – passive smoking is even less harmful than walking down a busy London street during rush hour. What next? Are we going to restrict where parents can push their buggies?

State nudging around food, booze and exercise has become normalised, but it is important to consider where this zeal for policing people’s private lives has come from. Middle-class notions of the ‘right way’ to raise children – in a green, organic, holistic environment – is influencing law. Labour’s shadow environment minster, Kerry McCarthy, became the subject of scorn and mockery when she said recently that ‘meat should be treated in exactly the same way as tobacco, with public campaigns to stop people eating it’. But the Tories’ new anti-smoking law bears the same paternalistic logic. Whether it’s Turkey Twizzlers or Coca-Cola, it is now considered abusive to feed your family food that doesn’t comply with the latest social panic around obesity. And, as of yesterday, parents had to sacrifice another small pleasure for the supposed benefit of their children.

Stop-smoking adverts on television often show caricatures of working-class family life: dad with paint-stained fingers smoking by the television, or mum ironing, fag-in-hand, while their son coughs over his egg and chips. There is a distinct class prejudice in these attempts to interfere with family life. Middle-class health fanatics have fuelled a moral panic about the welfare of the supposedly moronic masses. Hence the state, acting as the morally superior parent, must educate ordinary people in how to look after their children.

Behind all of this is the misanthropic idea that parents, without state supervision, will ignorantly or willfully harm their children. It goes without saying that, bar a few monsters, parents want the best for their children and raise them to be healthy and happy. The issue is that parents can’t raise their children confidently if they are treated like children themselves. As an adult, you should be able to smoke, drink and eat what you like, and, more importantly, be trusted to raise your children in the way that you see fit.

We must stand up to this patronising, middle-class hectoring, which uses pseudoscience and moral panics to control and demonise ordinary people. The saying ‘an Englishman’s home is his castle’ goes for cars, too. This attack on the freedom to parent is an attack on us all.

Ella Whelan is staff writer at spiked.

Ella is chairing the discussion ‘Campus Wars: safe or sanitised?’ and speaking on the panel ‘Time to tame advertising?’at the Battle of Ideas festival in London on 17-18 October. Get your tickets here.

For permission to republish spiked articles, please contact Viv Regan.

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