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Blog: Should smoking in cars be banned for health reasons?

Someone smoking out the window of their carSmoking has been outlawed in enclosed public spaces on health grounds – now private vehicles are the next target. Motoring journalist Maria McCarthy thinks this is a step too far. 

I'm not a smoker and I never have been. My parents and brother on the other hand were all heavy smokers.

I was brought up in the 1970s when people smoked everywhere – at home, on the bus, in the pubs – and it was widely accepted.

Changing times

I can even remember a pottery class at junior school where we all made ashtrays to take home to our parents. How times have changed!

In 2007 a ban on smoking in enclosed public spaces was put in place and now the British Medical Association (BMA) want to take matters further and outlaw smoking in cars.

Vivienne Nathanson, the BMA's director of professional activities said: “The UK made a huge step forward in the fight against tobacco by banning smoking in all enclosed public spaces, but still more can be done.

"We are calling on UK governments to take the bold and courageous step of banning smoking in cars.”

The reason given for this is to "stop others being affected by secondhand smoke".

Enforcement problems

But what if, like some drivers, you rarely carry passengers and don't smoke when they're present? And if such a law were passed, how would it be enforced?

The proposal by the BMA is about a smoking ban based on health grounds rather than on road safety.

But it is the road traffic police who would be called upon to enforce it and they're already kept busy dealing with speeding, drunk and uninsured drivers.

Even current laws, such as the ban on using hand-held mobiles, often go unenforced because of demands on police time.

Private property

Also, more significantly, such a law would require road traffic police to enforce a personal health issue in their own private property - their car.

What next? Saying that if the police pass someone's home and can see through the window that they're lighting up they should burst in and stop them?

Some states in Canada, the US and Australia, as well as the whole of South Africa, have introduced legislation against smoking in cars but it has been focused on stopping smoking where children are present.

A proposal for a similar law was put forward by Labour MP Alex Cunningham via a Private Member's bill which was to be heard on Friday 25 November this year, but this was objected to by another member and has been postponed till January 2012.

Child protection

Of course, this is a lot more understandable and I do sympathise with the viewpoint that adults have a choice about whether to travel in a car with another smoking adult, whereas children don't.

From a road safety point of view, the Highway Code states that "drivers should avoid distractions" - for example, eating, drinking, inserting a CD or smoking or trying to read maps on the move" – but doing so isn't necessarily illegal.

The Highway Code accepts, as most of us do, that certain things aren't advisable, but also that relentless legislation isn't the answer.

In my opinion, introducing new laws that many people will ignore and that are unlikely to be effectively enforced will weaken the importance of valuable legislation already in place.

Awareness campaign

When it comes to both the health and road safety implications of smoking in the car, I feel that a public awareness campaign of TV and newspaper adverts would work better.

As would bearing in mind the financial implications.

“Smoking in your car will significantly affect the resale value, as many people won't want to buy a car that smells of smoke,” says motoring journalist Gareth Evans of car valuation specialists Parkers.

Maria McCarthy

Maria McCarthy

Maria McCarthy is a motoring and lifestyle journalist and author of The Girls' Car Handbook and The Girls' Guide to Losing your L Plates published by Simon and Schuster. She's also a regular on BBC Breakfast news, and local and national radio, commenting on motoring matters. Her pet motoring hates are potholes and high fuel prices.

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