Looked-after youngsters are a priority, says Sheila Duffy
The number of children in care in Scotland has increased by more than 50 per cent in a decade, a recent report has revealed.
There are now around 16,000 children and young people in Scotland who are “looked after”,mostly for reasons of care and protection, by a local authority with a legal responsibility for their wellbeing.
ASH Scotland has recently researched how Scottish local authorities are going about protecting the children in their care from the harms of tobacco.
Looked-after young people are those subject to a supervision requirement at home, in “kinship care” with family, in fostering or adoption care, in a residential unit or school or in a secure unit.
Surveys suggest they are four times more likely to smoke than young people who are not looked after, and there are increasing numbers in community care where exposure to tobacco may be greater.
People most often become addicted to smoking at a young age when they are in a smoking environment. For young people, exposure to tobacco smoke is a particular health risk, so a robust tobacco control policy is vital to protect them from a lethal and addictive substance that will kill half its long-term consumers when used as intended.
The results of our investigation tell us that Scotland must do more to protect looked-after young people from the dangers of smoking.
Our study found that, potentially, as many as half of Scotland’s local authorities do not have tobacco control policies for care services that deal with children.
We contacted all 32 local authorities in Scotland to ask if they have measures in place to protect looked-after young people from the harms of tobacco, either from smoking themselves or being exposed to second-hand smoke from family members, adoptive and foster carers or staff in residential settings.
A total of 21 responded, but only 16 said they had a tobacco control policy for looked-after young people.
Of the 93 local authority-run care services we contacted about their policies, 70 were covered by local authority tobacco control policies, three were not and 20 didn’t respond.
Our report shows local authorities’ policies include:
• No recruitment of foster carers who smoke or a requirement that ex-smokers show they have quit for 12 months. However, some councils do employ foster carers who smoke.
• No child under five or with a disability or certain medical conditions should be placed with adoptive or foster carers who smoke.
• Existing carers are given support to quit and asked not to smoke in the home or car.
• Help for young people in care to stop smoking and ensuring that care workers never condone smoking or be seen to smoke or buy tobacco for a young person.
• No smoking in residential homes and staff encouraged not to smoke, including in grounds or on excursions.
We believe local authorities must ensure that they have tobacco control policies to protect young people in care and we would like to see all councils working to implement them as soon as possible.
Health-promoting tobacco control policies are seen as a vital component in addressing the complex needs and circumstances of young people in the care system, by making it a key priority for children to be raised in smoke-free environments.
We’re not criticising local authorities for their lack of policies.
First, we want to help them address the situation. So we are eager to give advice and support to councils and care agencies to put together policies or improve their existing guidelines.
Our advice includes:
• Incorporating tobacco policies into child protection policies to achieve the necessary support from staff and young people.
• Involving stakeholders, including young people, in the development of policies which concern them.
• Creating non-smoking, clean, safe environments where young people choose not to smoke to complement and dovetail with broader health topics.
Already, two Scottish local authorities and four care agencies have expressed enthusiasm to link with ASH Scotland to review and further develop existing guidelines, or create new tobacco control policies for looked-after young people.
Scotland has a vision of becoming tobacco-free by 2034 by putting smoking out of fashion for the next generation. To achieve this we must support all our young people to avoid taking up smoking and ensure they can live in environments free from damaging second-hand tobacco smoke.
• Sheila Duffy is chief executive of ASH Scotland www.ashscotland.org.uk