Smoking in the car? Time to stub it out!

If the Government is serious about its smoke-free goals and  protecting children from harm, it is time to ban smoking in cars, write  Profs Janet Hoek and Richard Edwards  and Emeritus Prof Robert Beaglehole.

The Government has decided not to ''introduce legislation, or other measures, to ban smoking in cars carrying children under the age of 18 years'' despite the health select committee's recommendation that they do so.

The Government rejected this sensible course of action on the basis that ''present initiatives are sufficient'' to deter smoking in cars while children are present.

As difficult as it is for any Government to change its collective mind, there are four compelling reasons why this decision must be changed: the associated health risks; strong public support for change; insufficient mass media and other support; and international precedents.

First, exposure to secondhand smoke is a proven health risk to children, particularly when they experience secondhand smoke in confined spaces, such as cars.

Thousands of children and young people are regularly exposed to smoking in cars and deserve better protection: in 2015, about 20% of 14 and 15-year-olds reported that, in the past week, they had been in a car or van while someone was smoking.

That figure represents nearly 12,000 young people - that's 300 buses full of young people - exposed to a toxic chemical haze inside a car each week.

What's even more staggering is that these figures represent only 14 and 15-year-olds. If we consider young people more generally, and assume they are exposed at only half this rate, we estimate that up to 100,000 children and young people aged under 18 are exposed to smoking in cars at least once a week.

Second, public support for this measure is strong; surveys have regularly found about 90% of New Zealanders support banning smoking in cars when children are present.

Young people themselves also strongly support banning smoking in cars while children are present: in one recent survey 88% of young people agreed with the statement that ''smoking in cars should be banned when children are in them''.

Third, despite the Government's claim that ''present initiatives'' are sufficient, there have been no sustained smoke-free cars media campaigns or national systematic efforts to reduce smoking in cars when children are present since 2006 to 2008, other than brief campaigns in 2013 and 2014.

Even the most optimistic advertiser would not rely on campaigns run a decade ago, and briefly refreshed four years ago, to influence people's actions. If these are the Government's ''present initiatives'', then they have failed to protect New Zealand's young people.

Fourth, New Zealand is lagging behind other countries in protecting young people from secondhand smoke - some Australian states

have given children this protection for several years, as have other countries around the world.

Introducing this policy need not require enforcement measures - the policy alone would stimulate change, just as policies introducing smoke-free outdoor areas have done.

Strong evidence of an avoidable health risk, overwhelming public support for action, and numerous exemplars of international best practice should be powerful incentives for Government action. So why not in New Zealand?

Surely this inaction is not because of ideological blinkers.

If the Government is serious about achieving the Smoke-free 2025 goal, it needs a comprehensive set of measures that will reduce smoking prevalence.

Protecting children from harms caused by smoking, and affording them the protection they deserve and that their Australian counterparts already receive, should be among the first of these measures.

-Profs Janet Hoek and Richard Edwards are co-directors of ASPIRE2025, a University of Otago research theme; Robert Beaglehole is an emeritus professor, University of Auckland.

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