Expert Blog

Smoking in cars: prepare yourself for the new rules

It’s now eight years since the smoking ban was introduced in England, on 1 July 2007. Eight years of not lighting up in pubs and restaurants and other enclosed public places. Eight years of having to trudge outside, in the sunshine or the rain, to get your nicotine fix.

We mention it because a new component of the smoking ban is about to come into effect. On 1 October, you won’t be able to smoke in a vehicle when a child aged under 18 is present. Or, rather, you will be able to – but you’ll be fined £50 if you are caught. It doesn’t matter if the vehicle is a car or a lorry. Yours or someone else’s. Smoking when a minor is present will be illegal.  

This is happening because MPs voted for it to happen. After years of wrangling in the House of Commons, along with various consultations and reviews, our legislators finally backed the ban by 342 votes to 74 in February. That’s a pretty resounding outcome.

Yet the support for the ban shouldn’t obscure the controversy around it. Those 74 MPs who voted against it did so, in many cases, with passion and fervour. They put forward two arguments in particular. First, that it’s the nanny state gone rampant: this regulation isn’t needed and will only lead to more in future. Second, that it’s very difficult to enforce.

Even if you support the ban, as I do, these arguments aren’t entirely unpersuasive. Is this regulation necessary? Not in the strictest sense of the term. Most people are already sensitive to the dangers of passive smoking, especially where kids are concerned, and won’t light up in their cars. In fact, a 2011 study found that only 13.6 per cent of smokers would satisfy their habit when a child is in their car. Presumably, they’d open a window before doing so. 

And will the police be able to enforce the ban? It’s surely asking quite a lot of our bobbies. Imagine a car zooming past. Would it be easy to spot a two-inch-long white stick in the driver’s hand, and then quickly scan for passengers who might be under 18 years old? Perhaps not. What if a passenger was 17 but looked older? Or was 18 but looked younger? It gets trickier and trickier.   

But politics is a game of trade-offs, and a trade-off had to be made in this case. On one side, there are concerns about privacy and practicability. On the other, there are concerns about children’s health. It was the latter that won out this time around – and rightly so, I’d say. As our correspondent Mark Simpson has already detailed on this site, second-hand smoke is particularly bad for children. I shan’t repeat his facts and figures here, although I shall repeat another from this document:

‘A Canadian study found that when the driver’s window is open and the cigarette is held at the opening when the driver is not puffing, the level of second-hand smoke produced by a single cigarette is about two-thirds of the level of an average smoky bar.’

That’s a lot of smoke for children to be chugging on, which is why the legislation applies to cars even when their windows are open. Only convertibles, with their hoods down, will be exempt.

Besides, the concerns of those 74 MPs may be less convincing on second glance. Of course people already refrain from smoking in the presence of minors – but that doesn’t mean that all of them do. And of course the police may struggle to catch everyone who flouts the new legislation – but that doesn’t mean that the legislation is pointless. As the Labour MP Alex Cunningham has pointed out, this ban could well become self-enforcing. The threat of not just a fine, but also of public disapproval, could convince many smokers that a front-seat ciggie just isn’t worth it.

The legislation might even go further. As it stands, it aims to deal with the problem of second-hand smoke, when a cigarette is smoked in the presence of a child. But what about the problem of third-hand smoke? This is the smoke that clings to surfaces such as clothes and car seats, long after its source has been stubbed out, and that has its own carcinogenic effects. Perhaps it would be easier to ban smoking in cars altogether. Or at least in cars that are used by more than one person.

This has basically been the situation for company cars since the smoking ban was first introduced in 2007 – so we’ve had eight years to get used to it. And no doubt we’ll also get used to these new regulations after they are introduced on 1 October. This is the thing with laws: one day’s controversy is often the next day’s consensus.

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