Seanad debates

Wednesday, 9 May 2012

Protection of Children's Health from Tobacco Smoke Bill 2012: Second Stage


4:00 pm

Photo of John CrownJohn Crown (Independent)

I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."

I welcome the Minister to the House. I extend my gratitude to my colleagues across the House for their support in allowing this Bill get to this Stage today. I thank also my fellow Senators Jillian van Turnhout and Mark Daly who joined me in advancing this Bill and were extremely important in getting it to this Stage.

The Protection of Children's Health from Tobacco Smoke Bill 2012 is a simple amendment to the existing smoking legislation which would extend the current prohibition on smoking in the workplace to smoking in any mechanically-propelled vehicle in which children under the age of 18 are travelling. With the benefit of ten years of analysis we believe the original legislation was visionary and world changing because it established Ireland as a leading country in the international fight against the scourge of tobacco-related diseases.

The background is well known to us all, and especially to the Minister who spoke eloquently in the broadcast media in recent weeks about issues related to tobacco smoke. As we are all aware, smoking is the principal cause of lung cancer. Lung cancer is a rare disease in those who have not smoked. It is the major cause of cancers of the head and neck. It is a significant contributor to a number of other cancers, prominently, cancer of the pancreas, the bladder and other parts of the urinary tract. It is perhaps the principal cause of premature cardiovascular disease including sudden death, heart attacks, heart failure and strokes, which might be fatal or life-threatening in terms of the disability they cause.

It is beyond controversy at this stage and generally accepted in the medical, scientific and epidemiological communities that there are substantial health risks associated with passive smoke, second-hand smoke, side-stream smoke or, more generally, environmental tobacco smoke which is endured by non-smokers.

We are certain that smoking contributes to an increased incidence of asthma and bronchitis, and the International Agency for Research on Cancer has firmly stated that the data conclusively show that systematic exposure to second-hand smoke among lifelong non-smokers is a substantial contributory cause to the occurrence of lung cancer. As a result, many international bodies have now come out and made statements firmly against second-hand smoke in favour of measures to restrict the exposure of non-smokers to second-hand smoke. These bodies include the World Health Organization, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, the US Surgeon General and the National Institutes of Health and National Cancer Institute in the United States.

Children face particular additional risks associated with passive smoke as they breathe more rapidly than adults and, therefore, take more breaths per minute. As a result, they have a greater level of internal exposure to any environmental toxin in the air they breathe. Furthermore, owing to their small size and the efficiency with which gas exchange occurs in their lungs, they have a higher level of tissue exposure per molecule of poisonous chemical in the atmosphere than adults. It is beyond doubt that children who are exposed to second-hand smoke run additional risks, especially in the areas of infection, bronchitis, asthma and, very worryingly, meningitis, which is often a sequel of other respiratory infections. Sadly, there is conclusive evidence that sudden infant death syndrome is more common in infants who are exposed to second-hand smoke. In addition, the British Medical Association has stated its belief, following an analysis of the data, that the incidence of childhood cancers, by which I mean not only respiratory cancers but those cancers which, sadly, occur in children, including brain tumours and lymphoma, are more common in children who are exposed environmentally to second-hand smoke. There is also some data to show that children who have early childhood exposure may have a higher risk of developing lung cancer in later life.

The car is a particularly hazardous environment and it is obvious its small confines increase risk to the exposure to smoke. Some of the numbers are startling. Within one minute of a cigarette being lit in an enclosed car, the occupational concentration of dangerous particulates in smoke is 30 times higher than the level at which the Environmental Protection Agency in the United States advocates that people flee the streets and close the windows in their homes to escape environmental smoke. The exposure after one hour in a car with smokers is the same as that which a firefighter experiences in four to eight hours of fighting a brush fire. Tellingly, the emissions are five times higher from a cigarette smoked in the car than from the tail pipe of the car during the period in which the driving is taking place. One hour spent in a smoky car produces the same occupational exposure as eight hours in a smoky pub, which is, thankfully, something of which few people in this country have proximate memories.

The next question is whether the problem of smoking in cars exists. Smokers and their advocacy groups argue that responsible parents who smoke will not smoke in cars with children present and the legislation is, therefore, unnecessary. I acknowledge that many smoking parents show a degree of responsibility in not smoking in cars with their children. I wish they would show a higher level of responsibility and give up smoking because they are exposing their children to smoke in other environments and running the real risk of leaving them orphaned. The responsible decision for a parent who smokes is to stop smoking.

The problem of smoking in cars with children exists. We have all seen people stuck in lines of traffic or car parks reaching for and lighting up a cigarette in a car in which children are present. Members have had considerable contact and received many messages in their offices from concerned citizens. The overwhelming majority of them are supportive of this proposed legislation. The small minority who oppose the Bill are overwhelmingly smokers who, when asked, admit they smoke in the car with children present. It is essential we pass this Bill, which is not a civil liberties issue but an issue concerning the rights of the child. No one has a right to expose a child to cigarette smoke.

In terms of liability the Bill specifies where the liability lies for the act of smoking in a car with children. As a result of the minor amendment, it will extend the list of specified places in the Public Health (Tobacco) Act 2002 to include "a mechanically propelled vehicle in which a person under the age of 18 is present". Section 47(1) of the Act lists a number of locations where it is an offence to smoke. Any person who smokes in such prescribed places is breaking the law. Under subsection (3), the liability extends to the person who is in charge of the enclosed space in question, in this case, the driver of the car. In addition, the Garda is given the power to enforce the law.

This brings me to the issue of enforcement because it has been argued that the law, while laudable in its goals, is fundamentally unenforceable. That is an error. In the first instance, the primary benefit of the legislation is not that we will create a crime against which enforcement will ensue, although the legislation will be enforced, but an educational one because a message will be sent out that, having considered all the evidence, a group of experts as well as the Minister, Department and legislators, is supportive of a ban on this activity because it is so dangerous and exposes children to risk. The next time someone thinks about lighting a cigarette or cigar in a car with children present, he or she will be aware this argument has been made. There will also be moral pressure from those who witness the lighting up taking place and the real moral pressure, of which all parents are aware, that is exerted by children who, in many cases, will not be slow to let their parents know they are doing something which is risky to children and against the law. Even if these moral strictures and educational incentives do not work, there is in the legislation provision for specific enforcement by the Garda, with a ministerial right to set a fine.

This Bill is not wholly unprecedented. Cyprus, for example, has already banned smoking in cars with children present and various jurisdictions across North America have enacted such bans. Many more jurisdictions are in the process of enacting similar prohibitions. It is interesting in this election year in the US that two of the four states to ban smoking in cars with children, namely, Arkansas and Louisiana, are red states that are likely to support Governor Romney for President, while the other two are blue states, namely, California and Maine, which are likely to support President Obama. This is not a civil liberties or left versus right issue but a health issue that extends across the spectrum of public opinion. Whatever one's attitude to the role of government or the necessity for good public health legislation, it is apparent to smart legislators who examine the issue that we should take this measure. Several Canadian provinces, a number of Australian states and some other individual jurisdictions have come down on the side of introducing such legislation.

This brings me to the issue of timelines. I have been heartened to receive many messages of support for the legislation from across the political spectrum. The Minister, for instance, expressed his support and noted the necessity for such a ban in the broadcast media. I salute him and offer him my gratitude. It is important we move on this issue, set a date and engage properly with the departmental officials who will have an input into the subsequent Stages of the Bill. We need to implement the legislation quickly. We should set a goal of ensuring children who travel by car with parents or guardians on their summer holidays this year do so in a smoke-free environment.

I will mention a young boy of seven years from County Wexford, Fionn O'Callaghan, who is known to the Minister and me. When Fionn witnessed someone lighting a cigarette in a car with children present, he took it on himself to write to the Taoiseach asking him to use his good offices to introduce legislation to enforce a smoking ban where children are present in a car. My understanding is this rather forward and highly talented young man also doorstepped the Minister for Health during a visit he made to Wexford. I also understand several organisations which have the word "Ă“gra" in their title may well be approaching Fionn with a view to his future career development. When he spoke to parliamentarians at an information evening held in the audio-visual room last week, Fionn made the case more eloquently than any of us older adults could do and stated it was wrong that somebody like him should, in an involuntary fashion, be forced to be exposed to the smoke of an adult who is not responsible enough to protect him or her from it. It is incumbent on all Members and part of our responsibility as parliamentarians to ensure the civil liberties and rights of our children to live, as far as possible, in an atmosphere that is protected from wholly preventable cancer and disease causing chemicals are vindicated. I thank Members for their attention.


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