North Platte, Nebraska, Police Chief Martin Gutschenritter wants to arrest parents who smoke in the car when their kids are with them for child abuse, a misdemeanor that carries a penalty of up to a year in jail and a $1,000 fine. Gutschenritter calls smoking around kids "the most insidious form of child abuse," citing Surgeon General Richard Carmona's recent report on secondhand smoke. "If you look at the state statute regarding child abuse, and if you look at the surgeon general's report, we believe that it's a clear violation," he says. "The fact that the injury isn't immediate, we feel is irrelevant." Maverick anti-smoking activist Michael Siegel comments:
Do you mean to tell me that to prevent the mere risk of some ear infections and respiratory infections, the Lincoln County Tobacco Coalition is willing to support the imprisonment of parents, removing them from their kids for a period of up to one year? You can't be serious. It is far more devastating, to be sure, for children to have a parent removed from them, than for the child to be at increased potential risk of an ear or upper respiratory infection.
It's preposterous that a parent who fails to buckle up their child in a car is punished with just a $25 fine, but smoking in that same car may soon result in a $1,000 fine and possible imprisonment. Failing to buckle a child in a seat belt will almost certainly result in severe harm in the case of a major car accident. And it could result in the death of the child. But in most cases, smoking in the car does nothing more than slightly increase the risk of minor health problems like ear and upper respiratory infections.
In Arkansas, which this year banned smoking in a vehicle occupied by small children, the penalty is a $25 fine (waived if the offender agrees to enter a smoking cessation program–rather illogically, as Siegel pointed out), a policy that seems almost reasonable next to Gutschenritter's incipient crusade.
[Thanks to Linda Stewart for the tip.]