We are happy to introduce the newest addition to our guest blog posts series by Chris Patterson & Heide Weishaar. Read on, share and comment! *
Following the Royal Assent of the Smoking Prohibition (Children in Motor Vehicles) (Scotland) Bill in the Scottish Parliament last week, Scots smoking in cars carrying children will soon face fines of up to £100. The bill aims to protect children from second-hand smoke in the semi-private space of the car. Chris Patterson and Heide Weishaar, researchers at the MRC/CSO Social and Public Health Sciences Unit of the University of Glasgow, reflect on how support for tobacco control legislation has grown in recent years.
It can be hard to remember the resistance to the idea of smoke-free restaurants and indoor public spaces when they were first proposed in the UK. Public support for smoke-free bars grew before, during and after implementation of the smoking bans, and the measure, which was once inconceivable to many, is now an accepted and popular part of British life. The new legislation targeting second-hand smoke in vehicles carrying children represents a significant move from the public to the private sphere.
Our research examining UK media coverage of the debate on regulating smoking in cars carrying children found that the media coverage was predominantly favourable towards the legislation. Opposition by political and industry actors was comprehensively countered by the health organisations and politicians arguing in favour of the regulation.
As an example of one of the opposing voices, Conservative MP Philip Davies was quoted in a 2011 Daily Mail article as asking “Why don’t [the BMA] say what they really want, which is for smoking to be banned altogether?”. If, as Mr Davies implies, the BMA are hiding an anti-smoking agenda, they are doing a bad job of it; their website clearly states their goal of a tobacco-free UK by 2035. Similarly, the Scottish Government’s tobacco control strategy sets out the aim of a smoke-free Scotland by 2034. With nearly one in five adults still using tobacco, limiting smoking in vehicles is one step along a much longer path. Another step might have to be to tackle exposure to second-hand smoke in the home. After all, this is where children experience the highest levels of exposure. As part of a Scottish Government push to reduce the proportion of Scottish children who are exposed to second-hand smoke in the home from 11% to 6% by 2020, the Take it right outside campaign urges parents to smoke outside to protect their children. Raising awareness may motivate some behaviour change, but given the complex array of social factors influencing smoking behaviours, nudging people towards voluntarily change may not be enough. Following legislative success in protecting children from second-hand smoke in cars, might policymakers turn their attention to the home?
In the debate about prohibiting smoking in vehicles carrying children, public health advocates effectively rebutted opposition arguments, but in a potential debate about prohibiting smoking around children in the home they could expect much fiercer resistance. We can anticipate that the tobacco industry would be defensive, the smokers’ rights lobby would be outraged, political conviction would be less steadfast and the public might be more sceptical. Time will tell whether policymakers are willing to take on that challenge, but history highlights the UK’s leading role in tobacco control. It also shows that social norms around smoking can change quickly. The speed of those changes can give those who advocate for the health of children hope that measures considered inconceivable today can become everyday tomorrow.
* The views expressed in this guest blog post do not necessarily reflect the views of the Editors of the International Journal of Public Health