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Smoking in Private Vehicles

Volume 530: debated on Wednesday 22 June 2011

Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to require the Secretary of State to make provision for a ban on smoking in private vehicles where there are children present; and for connected purposes.

My constituency is ranked 15th in the British Lung Foundation’s ranking of constituencies for children at most risk of passive smoking. The parent smoking hot spots table shows that almost 29% of households in Stockton North contain parents who smoke. In addition, the number of adult smokers is significantly higher than the England average, as are deaths from smoking. Also, more women smoke in pregnancy than the national average.

We are all aware that passive smoking is harmful to children’s health. According to the tobacco advisory group at the Royal College of Physicians, more than 300,000 children in the UK present to their GP with passive smoking-related illnesses every year. It also estimates that passive smoking causes about 20,000 new cases of wheezing and asthma in UK children each year, and makes a conservative estimate that that costs the NHS £22 million a year in hospital admissions and treatment costs.

In north-east England we are working hard to address the issue, including through action by charities such as Fresh, and we have had some great success. Smoking rates in the region dropped from 29% in 2005 to 22% in 2009, a welcome step forward in the fight against tobacco. Fresh tells me, however, that some 84,000 children in north-east England are still exposed to second-hand smoke in the home, a figure that must come down.

A recent YouGov poll showed that 90% of smokers in the north-east of England worry about the impact of smoking around children, and that 78% support a ban on smoking in cars carrying children younger than 18. That support is even higher elsewhere. When the British Lung Foundation teamed up with Mumsnet to find out the views of parents on smoking, it found that more than 85% of them supported a proposed ban on smoking where children are present. The research also showed that 83% of smoking parents said they would support legislation to protect children.

The science is clear. Experts say that children are particularly vulnerable to passive smoke, as they have quicker breathing rates. It goes without saying that consistent exposure to second-hand smoke can lead to a lifetime of respiratory problems. The Chartered Institute of Environmental Health has shown that smoking in cars is dangerous to children even after the cigarette is extinguished. Levels of second-hand smoke in cars can be extremely high, because of the restricted area in which the smoke is circulated.

A study by Aberdeen university showed that smoking in a car exposes children to levels of smoke that compare with the levels in a smoke-filled pub, which we fortunately no longer have to endure. The fact that children can be exposed to such an environment in cars is reason enough to introduce a ban on smoking in private vehicles when they are present.

In the Government’s tobacco control plan for England, “Healthy Lives, Healthy People”, they say that they want people to recognise the risk of second-hand smoke and to decide to make their homes and cars smoke free. Frankly, that is not good enough. We need a ban, and healthier children. I am told that the Government’s marketing strategy for tobacco control will set out further details on how they will support efforts to encourage smoke-free homes and family cars. Perhaps they will take the right action, but they need to be decisive.

We already have legislation to ban smoking in vehicles carrying passengers in the course of paid or voluntary work, including buses, trains, planes and taxis. I remember when it was considered normal for people to light up on public transport. Most would agree that attitudes have changed significantly. I cannot see how it can be a real hardship to anyone to stop smoking in private vehicles. The benefits will be tremendous. Given the significant health impact on children, who are unable to remove themselves from such cars, the Government should not dismiss calls for a ban.

Some will say that the car is a private space in which the Government should not intervene, but is the space in the back of a car not the child’s private space? Some adults invade it with dangerous smoke—[Interruption.] They do! They invade it with dangerous smoke. Some have asked why I am not pushing for a blanket ban on smoking in private vehicles. I believe that adults can make up their own minds about the dangers of smoking. We need to protect children.

Opinion research by the British Lung Foundation highlights the growing consensus among parents and children for legislation to protect children from passive smoke while they are travelling in cars. Its petition calling for legislation has already been signed by more than 16,000 people. The foundation’s research shows that just over half of eight to 15-year-olds surveyed were exposed to cigarette smoke when confined in a car, and that 86% of children in the UK want people to stop it. Rather worryingly, almost a quarter of the children surveyed reported that they had said nothing when someone smoked in the car, because they were too embarrassed. One in 10 said that they were too scared to say anything.

I would ask those who believe that legislation would be ineffective to look at car legislation on seat belts, mobile phones and drink-driving. Most if not all people adhere to such laws without the police becoming heavy-handed. For example, information provided to me by the House of Commons Library demonstrates that when wearing seat belts was made compulsory in 1983, the wearing of seat belts increased significantly. Before the law, 40% wore a seat belt, and 90% afterwards. A 1985 report estimated that that change saved around 7,000 fatal or serious casualties, and 13,000 slight casualties in the first year alone.

There are precedents from elsewhere for a ban such as the one I propose. Were such a ban introduced, we would be joining several countries where smoking in cars carrying children is prohibited. In the USA, legislation has been introduced in states including California and Maine; in Canada, there is legislation in British Columbia and Ontario; and in Australia, Queensland and Tasmania have introduced legislation.

Professor John Britton from Nottingham City hospital has looked at the lessons from Canada, where a national media programme was supported by legislation in some provinces. Data provided to him demonstrate that provinces that implemented legislation on smoking in cars with children saw a dramatic drop in exposure to smoke compared with states that focused only on education. In one case, the proportion fell from 21.4% to 13%.

UK politicians want action too: 36 MPs signed my early-day motion, and 78 signed early-day motion 214, sponsored by my hon. Friend the Member for Gateshead (Ian Mearns), which is on a similar issue. In Wales, the chief medical officer, Dr Tony Jewell, announced that he wants to start a debate on smoking in cars carrying children, and the public health department in Jersey is currently considering whether to ban smoking in cars altogether.

The health costs can be illustrated no better than by someone who has spoken openly and honestly about her smoking. Sharon Gould from Leicester told the British Lung Foundation that she started smoking when she was 14. Throughout her son Ben’s childhood she tried to give up smoking but did not manage to quit until three years ago. She would occasionally smoke in the car when he was present—always with the window down—and she also smoked in the home. She always thought, “Just one won’t hurt.” However, she was not aware of the serious dangers of passive smoking on Ben’s health—a child who was found to be asthmatic. Sharon is unaware of any family history of lung disease, so believes that her son’s asthma has been caused, in part, by passive smoking. She said:

“I don’t know if passive smoke was the whole cause of Ben’s asthma, but I know that it’s part of it…. It is vital that all parents understand the dangerous effects of passive smoke on developing young lungs.”

I have had particular support for the Bill from many members of the all-party group on asthma, who I am sure have all heard similar stories to the one told by Sharon. I would also like to thank the organisations that have lent their support to this cause, including the British Lung Foundation, Action on Smoking and Health, Fresh in the north-east and the British Heart Foundation. I am especially pleased to have secured support for the Bill from Members on both sides of the House. Polling indicates that the public are strongly in favour of a ban, and I hope that all Members will seek to protect the health of children in their constituencies. That is why I have brought the Bill before the House.

My opposition to the Bill is not based on self-interest: I do not smoke, I have never smoked and I am unlikely ever to start smoking. In fact, as it happens, I do not actually enjoy going into smoky places. However, many of my hon. Friends might not be surprised to see me here today, because I also voted against the smoking ban in 2006. My opposition to this Bill is similar to my opposition to the original ban, and is threefold: first, it is rooted in my strong belief in freedom; secondly, it is rooted in my belief in parental responsibility for bringing up children; and thirdly it is based on the complete lack of evidence surrounding the proposal. I am not surprised that the hon. Member for Stockton North (Alex Cunningham) is continuing to champion the extension of the nanny state into every aspect of the British public’s lives, because it is something that the Labour party excelled at during its time in office, and is still trying to do today. The proposal is excessive, intrusive and insulting to British parents who smoke.

In England, smoking has already been banned in a vehicle unless it is used primarily for private purposes by a person who owns it or has the right to use it, or is used at work by only one person or has an open cab. The suggestion of banning smoking in private vehicles while a minor is present is yet another unwarranted intrusion on individual freedom. The Government should have no role in regulating the private lives of adults making decisions as adults. Adults should be free to smoke in a private vehicle providing they do not light up or smoke in a way that distracts from safe driving. Of course adults should show courtesy to others in a private vehicle, but that does not require the nanny-state legislation proposed by the hon. Gentleman.

I would like to know how the hon. Gentleman would implement and enforce his proposal. Perhaps he envisages a scenario where children go around informing the authorities that their parents might have broken the law. Given that the Labour party is so upset about cuts to the police budget, does he really think that the police should be taking time out from catching burglars, rapists and other serious offenders to go around stopping cars to see whether anyone might have smoked in them while a child was on board? Does he think it a serious enough matter for the police to concentrate on? I presume that he would also like cars to go around with tinted windscreens, which might be the only upshot of his proposal. The whole thing is completely ludicrous.

On top of that, there is a substantial lack of evidence surrounding the hon. Gentleman’s Bill. The scaremongers have bandied about the claim that second-hand smoke is 23 times more toxic in a vehicle than in the home. However, in a journal for the Canadian Medical Association, MacKenzie and Freeman failed to locate any scientific source for this claim, and it remains unsubstantiated.

I wonder why the Government give such credence to the opinions of people at ASH, or Action on Smoking and Health. Members of the anti-smoking lobby, including ASH and SmokeFree, have received a large amount of Government funding, despite being charities. In 2009, the Department of Health gave ASH £191,000 for a report called “Beyond Smoking Kills”, which came on top of a direct grant from the Department to the tune of £142,000. Surely public policy should be protected from the vested interests of any single-issue group, including the pharmaceutical industry on the one hand, and vociferous, substantially taxpayer-funded lobby groups such as ASH on the other. In addition, the Department published a report by Professor Linda Bauld, who was commissioned to provide an academic review of the smoke-free legislation that was implemented in 2007. However, Linda is a member of ASH, so there was surely a clear conflict of interest in the report that the Government commissioned.

This proposal is also a solution looking for a problem. Let us look at the evidence on second-hand smoke exposure. A study carried out by Sims et al concluded that second-hand smoke exposure in children declined by nearly 70% between 1996 and 2006—that is, before any ban on smoking was even introduced, which reinforces the point that this Bill is clearly over the top and unnecessary. A survey of smokers showed that 85.3% do not smoke in a car with children in any event, while 6.5% said that they would seek permission before doing so. Again, this proposal is a solution looking for a problem.

We are here to defend the freedoms of people in this country, not to interfere in every aspect of everybody’s lives, as the Opposition would like us to do. This proposal would be one infringement on people’s liberties too far. Whether hon. Members decide to vote against it or allow it to wither in the long grass is a matter for them, but one thing I know for sure is that the Government should have nothing to do with such a ludicrous infringement on our liberties.

Question put (Standing Order No. 23).


That Alex Cunningham, Mark Durkan, Caroline Lucas, Mrs Jenny Chapman, Ian Mearns, Julie Elliott, Stephen Lloyd, Mrs Sharon Hodgson, Bob Blackman, Stephen McPartland, Mr David Amess and Bob Russell present the Bill.

Alex Cunningham accordingly presented the Bill.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 25 November, and to be printed (Bill 207).