Imagine that every time a child entered a car, they were putting their health at risk. Imagine that they could be exposed to poisons that they can’t see or smell, but that could make them ill now or months, even years, into the future. Imagine that their parents thought they were keeping them safe, but that the toxins lingered on, hurting their children.
Sadly, for thousands of young people across the UK, that is the reality today.
For many children, the only way to get to school, the shops or other activities is in a car with people who are smoking. This poses an immediate health risk through conditions such as asthma, glue ear and meningitis. It is associated with higher risk of chronic and fatal adult conditions such as COPD and lung cancer. And tragically, second-hand smoke is a known cause of cot death in babies.
We all know that tobacco smoke is bad for you. But few people realise the level of risk posed to young lungs and the wide range of conditions it can cause. And it’s a largely hidden danger. Some 85 per cent of second-hand smoke is made up of microscopic particles that are 20 times smaller than a single grain of sand. They pose an invisible but potentially deadly threat to children’s respiratory systems. And as children breathe faster and deeper than adults, their developing lungs are at greater risk than adults’ lungs.
Your lungs are with you wherever you are, and they have to last you a lifetime. In many ways you are what you breathe. So it’s great to see campaigns like Take It Right Outside, making adults aware that the only way to protect young people is never to smoke indoors. But smoke inside a car is a particular danger. Lighting up just once can lead to concentrations of smoke more than 11 times those in a pub before the smoking ban.
You might think that opening the windows and turning on the air conditioning would help clear the air. But the reality is, the particles of smoke are so small and so numerous that harmful levels will remain in the car, harming the young lungs breathing them in.
Protecting young people from exposure to the dangers of second hand smoke is a vital part of ensuring that Scotland’s future generations enjoy better lung health than we do. And now we have the chance to do just that. The Scottish Government has just launched a consultation on new measures to protect young Scots from tobacco. Among them is a potential ban on smoking in cars when someone under 18 is inside.
It can’t come soon enough. Thanks to legislation passed earlier this year, young people in England and Wales will soon be protected when they are in the car. They will be joining young people in the Republic of Ireland, Australia, Canada and the United States, which already have similar laws. We can’t be left in the slow lane.
Some people might be worried that the law will be difficult to enforce. While many countries already have similar laws in operation with no reported problems, we believe that the biggest change won’t come at the hands of the police waving people into a lay-by. Instead, this represents an opportunity to make a cultural shift. When the smoking ban in pubs came in there were predictions that police would spend their time doing nothing but checking every hotel and bar in Scotland for smokers, and that they’d never catch them anyway. That didn’t happen. Instead, people recognised the need for this new protection and obeyed the rules – not because they were afraid of punishment, but because they make good sense. It’s just this kind of change that we want to see.
Scotland now has the chance to take this vital step to protect our children from ill health and keep the next generation smoke-free. With four out of five UK adults supporting this proposal, I know that the Scottish Government’s commitment won’t waver and that, like when similar legislation was passed in Westminster, MSPs from all parties will vote to bring it in as soon as possible. Scotland’s children deserve no less.
• Dr James Cant is head of BLF Scotland www.blf.org.uk/scotland