Today is a momentous day for public health campaigners. A ban on smoking in cars with children present will be debated for the final time in Parliament.
Health experts are urging MPs to back a ban on smoking in vehicles carrying children as they say it is needed to safeguard the wellbeing of youngsters.
The House of Lords helped pave the way for the ban by voting in favour of a Government amendment in the Children and Families Bill to enable legislation to make it a criminal offence for drivers to fail to prevent smoking in their vehicle when children are present.
A survey shows that around 85% of North East adults would support a ban on smoking in vehicles carrying children and more than 700 medical experts have signed a letter to the British Medical Journal, calling for the vote to be carried as second-hand smoke exposure is a “major cause of ill health in children.”
Even a few years ago talk of such a ban would have got nowhere. But times and attitudes have changed.
Rob Allcock, a consultant in respiratory medicine at Gateshead’s Queen Elizabeth Hospital, said: “This is an important day in helping to alleviate the risks associated with second-hand smoke.
“When children are exposed to smoke in cars it does have a significant impact upon their health by increasing their chances of developing chest infections and asthma.
“Even when car windows are open the levels of smoke children are exposed to is comparable to the levels previously seen in pubs, and when the windows are shut, levels of smoke inhalation are so much greater.
“Risks associated with second-hand smoke are well established and children travelling in a car don’t have a choice as to whether they want to be in the car or not.
“The debate highlights an enormous change and this is a positive step at the right time. If this issue had been brought up 10 years ago the country would have been accused of being a nanny state.
“Now people know the risks associated with second-hand smoke and there is the understanding that this is the right thing to do.”
The amendment to the Children and Families Bill would allow the Government to make it a criminal offence for drivers to smoke in their cars when children were in the vehicle.
Attempts to stop smoking have been presented in Parliament a number of times over the years following the ban of smoking in public places, which was brought into force in July 2007.
The North East’s anti-smoking office, Fresh, has long called on North East MPs to back calls to restrict smoking in cars carrying children.
More than 800 children visit their doctor every day due to the serious effects of second-hand smoke exposure, according to research by the Royal College of Physicians. In the North East, 13,000 youngsters need hospital or GP treatment every year from breathing in smoke.
Every day millions of children in the UK are exposed to second-hand smoke, which puts them at increased risk of lung disease, meningitis and cot death. Treatment, hospital and GP visits for second-hand smoke related illnesses cost the NHS almost £24m each year.
Ailsa Rutter, director of Fresh, said “The evidence is clear. Smoking around children is harmful, especially in homes and cars, so it’s vital they are protected from the dangers of second-hand smoke.
“Too many people mistakenly believe opening a car window will protect their children from the toxic poisons but this is ineffective. Legislation protecting children from having to breathe second-hand smoke in cars would be incredibly popular, and we would support it.”
Fresh warns that more than 80% of second-hand smoke is invisible and odourless, and contains harmful cancer-causing toxins and poisons such as arsenic.
Research identified by the British Lung Foundation shows that a single cigarette smoked in a moving car with a window half open exposes a child in the centre of a backseat to around two-thirds as much second-hand smoke as in the average smoke-filled pub of yesteryear, with levels increasing when the car is static or with windows closed.
Laws on smoking in cars when children are present already exist in some US states, including California, as well as in parts of Canada and Australia.
Mark Cheetham, 36, of Whickham, a Gateshead Council safer community coordinator, has children, Isabella, five, Sophia, three, with another expected in five weeks’ time.
The father-of-two, who is married to Emma, 33, a health and lifestyle adviser, said: “I completely respect adults’ choice if they want to smoke as they understand the health risks associated with it, but children can’t make that informed choice.
“My wife and I are non-smokers and I haven’t witnessed many people smoking in cars with children in the back seat.
“However, I do think that it’s important to debate the issue in Parliament as it helps to highlight the risks of smoking in cars with children present.”
Those against the amendments say it would be difficult to police the issue and Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg says he does not support a ban on smoking in cars carrying children because it interferes with people’s civil liberties.
“Of course it’s a stupid thing to do to smoke when a child is in the back of a car but you don’t always have to have a law to fix things you don’t like,” he said recently.
But councillors in the North East have welcomed the move.
Cabinet member for health at Gateshead Council, Coun Mary Foy said: “It is extremely positive that the Government is taking the issue of people smoking in cars with children seriously and raising awareness of the dangers nationally.
“We know that local people are already becoming less tolerant of smoking around their children. We have been trying to raise awareness of the harms of smoking around others, particularly children at home and in enclosed spaces like cars, for many years.
“In a recent Gateshead survey, more than 91% of local people agreed that having smoke free homes and play areas to protect children, was important. Local Gateshead schools support the message that people should smoke outside of the home.
“We know that 85% of primary school children recently surveyed reported that nobody smoked in their home, and if there was a smoker, the majority smoked outside the home, protecting them from the smoke.
“Despite this awareness, thousands of North East children still need medical attention each year from being subjected to smoke, which suggest that awareness alone is not enough.”
Meanwhile, the House of Lords also voted for an end to glossy cigarette packs with slick logos by bringing in plain packaging.
Standard packaging for cigarettes and other tobacco products is intended to make starting to smoke less attractive to children and young people. Surveys in the North East show most smokers start as teenagers, with the average age at about 15. Evidence showed that young people found the standard packs without logos less tempting and more poisonous looking.
Packs would have no tobacco logos or branding apart from the name of the product in a simple typeface, and will be covered in written and graphic health warnings and advice on quitting.
Ms Rutter added: “Nine thousand children take up smoking and smoking remains our biggest killer with over 4,000 avoidable deaths each year. The aim is to help turn off the tap of a whole new generation of smokers and standard packs are an important step.
“Every council, dozens of North East MPs and tens of thousands of ordinary members of the North East public have put their support behind making this a reality. It’s about recognising our teenagers’ health is more important than the huge profits of tobacco multinationals.”
The Government announced last year that it would not proceed with legislation on standardised packaging. But after a cross Party and crossbench alliance in the Lords tabled an amendment to the Children and Families Bill, the Government announced in November to bring in its own amendment to the Bill.
The paediatrician Sir Cyril Chantler has been asked by the Government to conduct a review of the public health evidence on the policy, to report by next month.
John McClurey, an independent newsagent in Newcastle for more than 30 years, believes that all tobacco products should be sold in plain, standardised packaging to help protect children from being attracted to start smoking.
He said: “I think that the introduction of standardised packaging of tobacco products is a big step forward for reducing the appeal of eye-catching tobacco brands to suppress the temptation for children to start smoking.
“Currently if a child sees a packet of cigarettes behind a shop counter or in someone’s hand, they see bright innocent colours; glamorous designs and distinctive holograms.
“It is obvious that the tobacco industry is using these distinctive brands to appeal to young people into thinking that smoking is a normal or cool thing to do. Standardised packs on the other hand will reduce the novelty value of attractive tobacco brands and take away certain brand’s symbol status.
“As a retailer, introducing standardised packaging into my shop will be very straightforward to implement and will have no impact on our existing customers or trade.
“There are already very low margins of profit on a packet of cigarettes compared to other products within our store.
“If a customer decides that today is the day they will quit smoking and instead of paying nearly £6 for 20 cigarettes, they buy a packet of chewing gum for 49p – I will make 1p less profit and have a customer with £5.50 spare to spend on other products.”