'If They Can Come Into Our Car, They Can Come Into Our Homes'


James Gennaro, a New York City Council member, plans to introduce a bill next week that would ban smoking in cars carrying anyone under the age of 18. Smokers caught violating the ordinance would be subject to a fine of $200 to $400 for a first offense, $500 to $1,000 for a second within a year, and $1,000 to $2,000 for a third. This is Gennaro's response to critics who object that such a law would violate privacy and infringe on personal freedom:

Boo-hoo. You can't subject kids to 43 carcinogens and 250 poisonous chemicals and claim privacy. Get over it. Their right to privacy doesn't extend so far as to poisoning kids.

If this is really about protecting children, the same concern would justify banning smoking in the home. Indeed, as Michael Siegel notes on his tobacco policy blog, it makes little sense to focus on cars when the vast majority of exposure for children whose parents smoke occurs at home. But Gennaro also offers another rationale:

I am just seeking every opportunity I can to denormalize smoking and to try to put it out of the reach of kids. I've lost family members to lung cancer and I've seen what happens.

Like bans on smoking in bars and restaurants, in parks and on beaches, and on sidewalks and streets, a ban on smoking in cars helps "denormalize" the habit, transforming it into a shameful vice practiced only in the privacy of one's home. Not incidentally, banning smoking everywhere but private residences (assuming it is still allowed there) makes it highly impractical to maintain a pack-a-day habit. Protecting nonsmokers from secondhand smoke (even when they freely choose to enter private businesses where smoking is allowed) thus becomes a pretext for protecting smokers from their own unhealthy choices.

Children, of course, do not have the same freedom as adults to choose their homes or their rides. But as I've said before, a somewhat higher risk of lower respiratory infections (one that is seen only in small children, not in the older kids and teenagers covered by Gennaro's bill) is not the sort of hazard that justifies overriding parental autonomy (let alone splitting up families, which is what would happen if smoking at home were recognized as a form of child abuse, as some activists urge). To be consistent, other parental decisions that can affect children's health, including those regarding bedtimes, TV watching, diet, exercise, and dental hygiene, also would be subject to micromanagement by the state. As Audrey Silk, founder of Citizens Lobbying Against Smoker Harassment, tells The New York Sun, "If they can come into our car, then they can come into our home. And everybody should be afraid of this, not just because of smoking."