The House of Lords has backed Labour’s proposal to ban smoking in cars containing children. However, the coalition government seems less keen on the idea, with Nick Clegg speaking out against the plans, although it does seem that MPs will get a free vote on the matter. Reasons given against a ban include that it would be unenforceable, that there should be awareness campaigns instead, and that the law shouldn’t invade people’s private spaces in this manner.
But none of these reasons hold up to scrutiny. The fact that a law might be difficult to enforce is irrelevant to whether it should be in place. Other crimes, such as software piracy, are difficult to enforce as well, but that doesn’t make a case for legalising them. The very fact that something is illegal is likely to act as a deterrent for many people. Remove the crime of software piracy and see what happens. And if detection rates for more serious crimes started to fall, no-one would consider it to be a reason for legalising them. Enforceability is an irrelevant consideration.
An awareness campaign is obviously a positive step, but this should be in addition to, not instead of, legislation. There have been many awareness campaigns against drink-driving, but reducing the rate of it through these measures is not a reason for legalising it. Similarly, you wouldn’t legalise burglary if no-one committed it. Like enforceability, low levels of occurrence are simply irrelevant.
It’s also nonsense to suggest that the law shouldn’t invade people’s private spaces in this way. There are many things you can’t do on your private property, like committing assault. I see inflicting your second-hand smoke on someone without their consent as a form of assault, and where an assault takes place is irrelevant. You can’t punch someone just because you’re in your own car, so you should not be able to inflict your second-hand smoke on them either. A physical assault isn’t just about the amount of force used. That’s a very narrow and simplistic way of looking at it. Second-hand smoke causes physical damage to the body, and so has just as much claim to being a form of assault. It just happens to not be instantly noticeable, and takes place over a longer period. But don’t let that fool you. The physical harm is definitely taking place. Some might even argue getting cancer thirty years after the event is even worse than having an instant bruise. Second-hand smoke is very harmful.
Smoking in your car with children present is just the start. I would also extend it to any unborn babies present. This would obviously preclude any (knowingly) pregnant woman from smoking. And based on the comparison with assault, it would have to also extend beyond children to any non-consenting adults. There is also no reason to stop at cars. It should include any enclosed space, including rooms in your house. If someone wants to have a cigarette in an enclosed space, then they should only do so if everyone in the vicinity is a consenting adult. Obviously if someone is in their own house, and a guest objects, then they can ask the guest to leave the room or the house, but while any non-consenting individual is present, I think that it is unacceptable to smoke.
Similarly, if I set up my bedroom as a boxing ring, and said that I was going to fight anyone in my room, I would have to wait for anyone not wanting to participate to leave before I could start. It’s not enough to warn them and then start punching away if someone doesn’t leave; they would have to actively consent to the fight. And because I view inflicting second-hand smoke on someone as a form of assault, as I do punching, the situation would have to be the same, or the law would be left with an arbitrary asymmetry. There would have to be consent. It’s not enough for them to not leave. This is probably the most extreme part of my policy but I make no apologies for it, and it follows directly from classing the infliction of second-hand smoke with physical assault.
It’s also not just about enclosed spaces. You can be affected by someone’s second-hand smoke outside, and this can still be very harmful. In particular, children who are outside all day with a smoking parent are subjected to a lot of second-hand smoke. But also, I should be allowed to go about my business outside in public without strangers’ second-hand smoke in my face. This is why I think smokers should have to leave a reasonable space around them within which there are only consenting adults. We’d have to look at the size of the “exclusion zone”, but at a first guess, a radius of around five metres would probably be enough. Obviously no smoker is going to carry a tape measure at all times, but there could still be a guideline figure, and it would be about whether the smoker had taken all reasonable steps to ensure that they did not breach this.
However, I don’t think we need specific smoking-related legislation for this. It would leave us with an arbitrary asymmetry in the law and not for the first time in this post. There are many similar activities one could engage in that would be roughly equivalent forms of assault. For example, there are many other legal substances you might find lying around in your house that would give off noxious fumes when burnt. All these forms of assault could be classed according to harm caused.
I’m not sure what would happen now if I burnt a noxious non-cigarette substance in the vicinity of other people. Logically, nothing should happen from a legal standpoint. If I was prevented from continuing with this activity, then it seems that smoking actually has special protection under the law, and if that is the case, it is clear that this protection should be removed. But clearly if I did burn an equivalently noxious non-cigarette substance in the vicinity of other people, it should not be allowed to continue unimpeded. The same must go for smoking.