Smoking As Child Abuse: From the Car to the Home


A Sacramento Bee story about California's new ban on smoking in vehicles carrying minors quotes John Banzhaf, founder and executive director of Action on Smoking and Health, who wants the ban extended into smokers' homes. "Smoking, like other activities, should be confined to consenting adults in private," he says. Banzhaf elaborates in a press release he sent me today:

The nonsmokers' rights movement, which has largely worked to protect adults from exposure even in areas like bars or restaurants where they have a free choice, is now moving to protect the most innocent and helpless victims of tobacco smoke pollution who have no choice at all….A man's home may be his castle, but that doesn't mean he is free to abuse his children inside it by unnecessarily subjecting them to a substance which is known to cause cancer, and which kills thousands of children every year.

Since it seems likely that smoking in bars and restaurants will soon be prohibited throughout the country, I guess Banzhaf thinks it's safe to admit that all those nonsmokers he and his allies supposedly have been trying to protect from "involuntary" exposure to secondhand smoke in fact have "a free choice" about whether to enter an establishment where smoking is permitted. He's right that children do not have the same choice about whether to live with parents who smoke. But contrary to Banzhaf's implication, epidemiological studies generally do not find an association between childhood exposure to secondhand smoke and lung cancer. Instead they indicate higher incidences of earaches and respiratory infections among children of smokers. When I interviewed Banzhaf for my 1998 book about the anti-smoking movement, he suggested that such risks do not by themselves justify government intervention. "Where a parent knows that the child is sensitive to [tobacco smoke], where the child has exhibited serious symptoms from it in the past," he said, "then it seems to me that in some situations some intervention is warranted." Nowadays he is less tentative. "Increasingly," he notes with approval in today's press release, "smoking around children is seen as just another form of child abuse."

For her part, the author of California's car smoking ban, state Sen. Jenny Oropeza (D-Long Beach), denies any intention to target smokers in their homes. "This is America, for goodness sake," she tells the Bee. "I'm not into prohibition." When I debated this subject with Oropeza last week on KPCC, the NPR station in Pasadena, she said it made sense to focus on smoking in cars because, unlike smoking in homes, it's "highly visible." That rationale suggests the law is not about protecting children so much as protecting the sensibilities of people who are offended by the sight of Mom lighting up on the way to dropping the kids off at shool.

In a column last fall, I suggested that child protection would be the rationale for broadening bans on smoking in private residences. More on smoking as child abuse herehere, here, and here.