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Smoking Wheels of Fire

Mark Simpson on why the dismal pleasure of smoking in cars should be stubbed out

This may sound a little strange, but I can smell if the people in the car in front are smoking. Even if my windows and theirs are up.  I do have a keen sense of smell, but I think the reason I can detect fag fumes so well is that I’m over-sensitised as the result of childhood aversion therapy.

Both my parents were chain-smokers. And they didn’t smoke any old sissy cigs, no sirree, they smoked hairy-chested, unfiltered Senior Service – so high tar they could have powered battleships. When our family undertook long car journeys to see in-laws, or to Cornwall for our summer hols, it would be in a Rover full of sweets and tobacco by-products.

Perhaps I’m a particularly delicate flower, but four decades on I still remember how much I hated it. How much it made my eyes smart and my nose recoil every time one of them lit up. I dreaded the satanic red glow of the electric cigarette lighter.

But my parents, like most people back in the 1970s, had no idea of what second-hand smoke (SHS) can do to children’s health, and probably were in denial about what it was doing to theirs. If they had known about SHS I think they would have stopped back then – instead of three decades later because they wanted to be able to continue breathing.

A burning cigarette produces 4,000 chemicals, most are pollutants and irritants, 69 of them are known carcinogens. For children, we now know, SHS significantly increases the risk of asthma, chest and ear infections, meningitis and cot death. Smoke in your family car and it becomes eleven times as polluted as a smoke-fugged bar – something which was, mercifully, largely made a thing of the past when smoking in enclosed public spaces was banned in 2007.

But despite the knowledge we now have about the danger of second-hand smoke, and despite nationwide education campaigns, too many adult smokers still insist on sharing theirs with their children when driving. According to the BMA more than 430,000 children are exposed to SHS in cars every week. The Department of Health says that there were 300,000 GP visits and 9,500 hospital admissions in 2011 as a result of children inhaling SHS.

So, from 1 October this year, drivers in England who continue to smoke in cars with passengers under the age of 18 could be fined £50. Which obviously, as a bitter, former unconsensual car smoker, I regard as very welcome, if somewhat belated, news. Several other countries, including Australia, Cyprus and parts of the US and Canada, already have a ban on smoking in cars with minors.

Simon Clark, director of the smokers lobby group Forest, is less happy however. More sulphurous, perhaps. He told the BBC there was ‘no justification’ for the ban and that ‘the overwhelming majority of smokers know it’s inconsiderate to smoke in a car with children and they don’t do it. They don’t need the state micro-managing their lives.’ Apparently writing-off those 430,000 children a week choking on Mummy and Daddy’s driving nicotine addiction.

He also claimed that the police won’t be able to enforce the ban, and ‘will need a small army of snoopers to enforce it.’

Not to worry, Mr Clark! Help is at hand! This spring the police plan to introduce unmarked lorries to patrol motorways and A-roads nationally. A three-month trial last year, where a policeman videos drivers’ illegal activities from the lofty vantage point of the HGV, led to the detection of 462 motoring offences. These were mostly texting or phoning or failing to wear a seat-belt – but also included a driver brushing his teeth while at the wheel and another reading a newspaper while in slow-moving traffic.

So spotting and recording adults smoking with children in the car should be a breeze.

Though perhaps the man from Forest has a point. It would be much simpler to ban all smoking in any vehicles altogether, as the BMA has argued.

Apart from eliminating the problem of establishing whether the passengers are under age or not, and solving persistent breaches of smoke-free legislation by shared work vehicles, refraining from smoking while driving when children or passengers are present is not enough to prevent the harmful effects of tobacco smoke being passed onto others.

All those lovely, rich toxins in tobacco smoke are impregnated – along with the lovely, rich aroma – in the plastics, carpet and upholstery of the vehicle, ready to share their love with whoever rides in that car. It’s not just my obsessiveness talking – it’s a recognised problem with a name: third-hand smoke.

What’s more, smoking behind the wheel is potentially dangerous to others in itself. Looking for and lighting cigarettes can be a major distraction, even without the burning stick falling into your lap; smoking while driving may be as distracting as mobile phone use, which is of course already banned. A study in 2008 found that smokers are twice as likely to be involved in a crash as non-smokers, independent of demographic factors and risk-taking.

A total ban would also help reinforce the message about smoking. Even after all these decades of knowing what cigs do there are 79,000 deaths in the UK a year from smoking.

Even better, it would mean that I never have to smell the car in front’s fag smoke again.

I realise though that it may take some time for the British public to be persuaded of the need for a total ban on smoking in cars. After all, it was once one of the nation’s favourite, if most dismal, past-times. Perhaps I should move to Taiwan, which plans to ban smoking while driving a car, riding a bike or walking on a sidewalk.

Which seems perfectly reasonable to me.

Originally appeared on Hitachi Capital Vehicle blog

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4 thoughts on “Smoking Wheels of Fire”

  1. I had to endure second-hand smoke throughout my childhood too, and when my brothers hit their teens they were ‘allowed’ to smoke at home with my parents.

    I became a recluse, shutting myself away in my bedroom just to get away from the terrible toxic smoke.

    They thought I was being snobbish and arrogant by doing so, not equating the bio-terrorism that I had no choice but to endure.

    It killed my Mother in the end, her whole body riddled with Leukaemia, she was smoking the day before the deathsticks sucked the final breath out of her damaged lungs.

    I on the other had ended up with Thyroid Cancer because of their legacy.

    So in closing, yes! ban smoking in cars – if fact BAN SMOKING ALTOGETHER.

  2. Elaine: I didn’t know that Liverpool had stubbed ciggies out so soon – but then I didn’t realise it had the worst smoking-related problems. Quite a few smokers characterised the nationwide ban on smoking as ‘an attack on working class pleasures’. I think it was the best thing New Labour did, after a minimum wage.

    HH: The story of your aunt’s scar has all the ingredients of a classic Man Men episode.

  3. In Liverpool the ban happened in 2004 however I remember malls and libraries were sooner. Having the highest rate of deaths due to smoking related illnesses meant the council had no choice but to force people to stop.

  4. “…light­ing cigar­ettes can be a major dis­trac­tion, even without the burn­ing stick fall­ing into your lap. ”

    That phrase raised a mild shudder of recollection.

    My aunt’s face was a picture of youthful beauty, with one intriguing imperfection—a scar that ran above her eye, across the forehead, and under the hairline.

    My uncle, then her fiance, once took her for a spin in his new Oldsmobile, and lit a cigarette as they cruised down the highway. When finished, he tossed the butt out the driver’s window. Instead of landing beside the road, it flipped into the open rear window, landing on the back seat, setting it alight.

    My uncle lost control of the car, and the crash laid him up in hospital for quite a few days; my aunt, however, took longer to recover. I can only imagine the emotions racing through both of their hearts as it happened.

    The accident created a family of ardent non-smokers thereafter, rewarding my father’s generation with long, and reasonably healthy, lives. My aunt, bless her, is still enjoying hers.

    As a kid, I rather enjoyed the smell of second-hand smoke. In those days before the carcinogenic qualities of smoke were known, I found it hard to work out why my parents reacted so severely against it. I now know why.

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