Smoking in Car Declared Child Abuse in UK

Professor Steve Field, of the prestigious Royal College of General Practitioners, wrote an open letter to the Observer newspaper on August 8th 2010, stating quite clearly that in his view parents who smoke in the car in front of their children are committing a form of child abuse. Perhaps not the sort of child abuse which is usually implied by the term, but certainly damaging behaviour which may affect children’s development and health for years and decades to come.

While this headline looks absurd and overblown, medical concern about the state of public health continues to build across much of the developed world, and particularly in the United Kingdom, where the obesity epidemic shows no signs of slowing. Field feels that society’s attitudes to food, to alcohol and to tobacco are forming a large part of the problem, and that parents need to take much greater responsibility for the health of their offspring.

Health experts have argued before that smoking should be banned in cars where children are present, but it is unlikely that the UK’s coalition government will impose such a ban in the near future, let alone declare smoking in a car with a child to be an offence of the same order of magnitude as child abuse.

Field’s point is that not only are parents putting their children at risk from passive smoking at an early age, when their lungs and bodies are still developing (and with asthma and other such respiratory illnesses ever on the increase, this is a particularly irresponsible thing to do), but that children who see their parents smoking will be learning this as acceptable behaviour, and perpetuating harmful habits for another generation.

The thing is that many of the people who make this kind of statement about public health have some kind of political axe to grind. This is not so much the case with Field, he represents more than 42,000 medical professionals, and is speaking out not so much to try and influence political policy, but to question individual attitudes to health.

Professor Field is proposing drastic changes to the way in which society thinks about public health, balancing the need to uphold individual rights and sensibilities about lifestyle choices, along with the need to highlight that those choices have very real and drastic effects on health and life expectancy.

The danger of the way in which the open letter has been reported is that reactionary readers will dismiss the child abuse claim as hyperbole, another affront to civil liberties and an over-reaction from the nanny state, without taking into account the fact that exhaling toxic fumes all over your child in an enclosed space, and showing them that to do so is socially acceptable IS child abuse, and that if society treated it as such, we would have taken a small step towards improving the health of thousands of young people.