Seanad debates

Wednesday, 9 May 2012

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


4:00 pm

Photo of Jillian van TurnhoutJillian van Turnhout (Independent)

I support the Bill and welcome the Minister to the House. I thank my colleagues, Senators Crown and Daly, for their collaboration on and commitment to this important public health and children's rights initiative. I echo Senator Crown's words on young Fionn O'Callaghan who, if he were present, would certainly convince everyone in this Chamber of the reason this Bill needs to be enacted without delay.

Article 24 on the UN Convention of the Rights of the Child states that state parties recognise the right of the child to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of health. By banning smoking in cars with children present, we aim to protect the health of children who cannot otherwise protect themselves. I am not immune to some of the concerns raised by others in the lead up to this debate. It reminded me of the months preceding the ban on smoking in the workplace in March 2004. I was not convinced that it would work or whether it was right, because I was accustomed to going into a pub or cafe and leaving with the smell of smoke on my hair and on my clothes. Smoking had become so normalised for me that I did not know anything different. I was like the prisoners of Plato's cave; I had accepted the dancing shadows as my reality. However, at the very least, this mistake was one which I had the autonomy to make. Children do not enjoy this luxury. They cannot extract themselves from smoke filled environments as I could. They are often less aware of the dangers of second-hand smoke, while those who know the risks may not be in a position to challenge their parents or the adults who are driving them. Indeed, they should not have to do so. All children believe that their parents can shield them from danger, and that is a fiction they have a right to believe. Children should always feel safe when with their parents. They need to know that if nothing else, their mothers and fathers will always have their best interests at heart. By regulating this behaviour, we are taking the onus off the child and placing it back onto the parents, challenging them to live up to the expectations of their children.

I am sure everyone agrees that the medical evidence presented by Senator Crown is utterly compelling, yet in reviewing the arguments, I am reminded of an anecdote a bar tender once told me. Before the smoking ban was introduced, he would wipe down the bar every night and without fail the cloth was covered in thick grime. Once the ban came into force, he said he only had to wipe the bar down twice a week and the same level of grime was not there. That put a picture in my head of how much we do not see. While it is only an anecdote, I can but imagine the effect a prolonged exposure to such levels of smoke would do to the lungs of a child. According to the British Medical Association, the level of toxins in a car can be up to 11 times higher than in a smoky bar.

The national longitudinal study of children noted in 2009 that approximately 60% of nine year olds in Ireland travel to school by car, with an average journey time of ten minutes each way. In addition, we know that children are driven to sporting and youth activities, to other events and homes of friends, and to medical and other appointments. All that time in the car adds up. However, exposure of children to smoke during these journeys represents a substantial risk to their health and well being, so efforts must be made to ensure that these children enjoy the same protection that we have already afforded to adults. We all believe that we have a right not to be harmed or subjected to a significant risk of harm. When it became widely accepted that inhaling second-hand smoke posed such a risk, we legislated for this behaviour. If we believe that a child has the same right to protection from harm that adults enjoy, then there is a corresponding obligation to protect that child from the danger of second-hand smoke. Indeed the risk of harm from exposure to smoke is greater in the case of children. They are far more sensitive to tobacco smoke because their lungs and bodily defence mechanisms are still developing, because they inhale far more pollutants per pound of body weight than adults, and because they are more likely to have allergies or other conditions which make them more sensitive to airborne pollutants.

I have heard arguments that this legislation should be part of a wider prohibition of smoking in public places such as parks and beaches. Perhaps there is a need for greater public debate, and I welcome what the Minister has done to raise awareness among the public and to begin that debate. The Bill put forward today deals with a very discrete issue of smoking in cars with children. I appeal to county councillors around the country to use the by-laws and regulations of their councils to look at areas such as playgrounds and other places frequented by children. For example, I believe Fingal County Council is hoping to put it in place in the near future. Sometimes councillors say that they do not have powers to do certain things, but they have the powers to do this, so I appeal to councillors to use the powers they have where children are directly put in harm's way.

I echo the calls of Senator Crown in asking the Minister to accept the Bill today. He should also give a commitment on what will happen over the coming days and weeks. I ask the Minister to outline a clear timetable for the next Stages of this Bill. My hope is that this Bill will be in place for the summer holidays, so that children can go on holidays in a smoke free environment. This gives us enough time to consider any amendments, while also creating an urgency to protect children's health. The aim of such measures is to denormalise smoking. This Bill is about the protection of one of the most fundamental rights; the right of the child to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of health. I am very aware of the Minister's commitment to this issue. I hope that today will be a first step of many quick steps that will soon see this Bill in place, so that we can show the power we have to improve and protect children's health.


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