A distinctive change in modern life has been the decline of smoking. Numbers have broadly halved since 1974 when 51 per cent of men and 41 per cent of women smoked. It is banned in almost all indoor public places while public attitudes towards smoking have notably hardened.
So it is understandable that health campaigners would like to see a total ban on smoking in cars. Doctors are now calling for an outright ban as new laws take effect today banning smoking in vehicles where children are on board. Drivers or passengers caught smoking in private vehicles with children present can now be fined up to £1,000.
The health case for an outright ban is formidable. Second hand smoke can give rise to serious health conditions such as bronchitis, pneumonia and asthma.
However, while medical opinion is in favour of a total ban, and the public broadly supports a ban in vehicles where children are passengers, legislators need to be sure that public opinion would support a total proscription.
What of a driver who is alone in a vehicle and who is caught smoking? Or an adult passenger who is smoking with the driver’s consent? Or a passenger who can make a personal choice on whether or not to share a car with a smoking driver?
Enforcing such a law in all conditions may prove difficult. Here well intentioned law could prove ineffective if significant numbers of the public find it invasive of personal freedom or law enforcers do not enforce the ban equitably.
There is an issue here of public compliance. Behavioural change can be achieved when individuals conform to what is socially acceptable and desist from actions that harm others. But lone drivers may argue that they are in a confined space and that their smoking, while harmful to them personally, does not present a danger to others.
Many drivers also regard the interior of their car as a personal space, and it is one of the reasons why public bodies have found it difficult to encourage people to switch out of cars and opt for public transport, no matter how regular or reliable the service.
In a car the driver can play music, or listen to the radio, or simply enjoy the sense of protection and even haven that the interior is felt to provide. Extending the long arm of behaviour-enforcing law would be questioned by many and may cause resentment and resistance among a large number of drivers.
Would motorway smokers be pursued? Or only those in slow-moving urban traffic where enforcement may be easier?
It is better, surely, that the new law to protect children from adult smoking is successfully bedded in before changing the law to bring in an outright ban on all smoking within vehicles. Extending a law which has gained public compliance and support would be likely to prove more acceptable.
Doctors and health authorities in the meantime should continue their valuable work in informing the public of the dangers of passive smoking and building support for broader action.