MPs approve ban on smoking in cars with children

Changing attitudes: Children were once used in adverts to promote smoking to parents.

In a move that delighted doctors and health campaigners, the House of Commons has voted to protect children in cars from passive smoking. Is the state meddling too much in family life?

Last night the ‘ayes’ drowned out the ‘nos’ as Britain’s MPs comfortably approved a measure allowing the government to ban adults from smoking in a car carrying children.

It was an intriguing debate on an issue that has divided the 22 ministers in the cabinet. Health secretary Jeremy Hunt backed the ban but found himself at odds with cigar-smoker Ken Clarke. Communities secretary Eric Pickles warned that it could lead to social workers monitoring families for putting children ‘at risk’. And some were opposed to the ban on liberal principles. Deputy prime minister Nick Clegg said that smoking with children present is ‘a stupid thing to do,’ but banning it would mean ‘subcontracting responsible parenting to the state.’

And others took unpredictable positions: the traditionally laissez-faire Boris Johnson, no longer an MP but still a leading Conservative, has argued that the ban will give smokers ‘an extra legal imperative to do the right thing.’

Three years ago David Cameron said the law would be unenforceable and we should instead focus on encouraging the change in social attitudes that now makes smoking a frowned-upon activity. Only eight years ago, office workers could smoke at their desks. A mere 30 years ago passengers could smoke on the London Underground.

Opinions are hardening against smoking all the time. The prime minister backtracked yesterday and backed a ban instead of continuing public health campaigns on the dangers of smoke in confined spaces: ‘the time has come,’ he said.

With neither of the coalition’s parties imposing a whip, MPs were told they could vote freely and follow their consciences.

Doctors have lobbied for a ban for years. They point out that smoking is the biggest cause of preventable deaths in Britain and that 300,000 GP appointments are made every year for problems caused by children inhaling second-hand smoke.

But the pro-smoking group Forest argues that the vast majority of parents are considerate and do not smoke near their children: why introduce a measure that will be so hard to enforce?

Clearing the air

‘First pubs, now cars, next your own home. Where does this end?’ complain some. The police already have enough to do, but now they will have to look out for a new category of criminal: parents. The nanny state is out of control and it wants too much interference in family life.

Others argue that it is right to intrude on parents’ privacy if they are harming their children, whether through neglect or through smoking. Treating lung problems costs the country billions each year; the ban will save money and lives at the same time. Good parents should put their children first – thanks to this law, they now have to.

You Decide

  1. Is it a good idea to make it illegal to smoke anywhere where you might affect the health of others? Or just of children?
  2. ‘Telling people what to do in their private space imperils the liberty of all’. Do you agree?


  1. Split into two teams, one arguing for the ban, one against. Pick a spokesperson and hold a debate.
  2. Research the science of passive smoking and prepare a presentation for your class.

Some People Say...

“Sitting inside someone’s car is like getting inside their living room.”

What do you think?

Q & A

Why not just treat smoking like a drug and ban it outright?
The smoking ban is not designed to save adult smokers from themselves but to protect children. An outright tobacco ban would criminalise around 20% of the population: politicians would be very wary of imposing such a harsh law. But some suggest harsh penalties: for example, refusing NHS treatment to smokers with smoking-related diseases.
What else in family life involves government intervention?
The children’s commissioner for England says she wants the smacking of children to be banned completely. Currently the law allows ‘physical chastisement’ but not anything so strong that it leaves a mark – there is a maximum jail term for such an assault. Some people say this is a fitting area for the law to control, others disagree.

Word Watch

Liberalism is a political philosophy which argues that individual freedom and political freedom should be the most important values for a state. But there are different sorts of freedom which often have to balanced against each other: for example, in this case, the freedom to smoke against the freedom of a child to grow up healthy.
This phrase, describing an attitude or political philosophy, broadly translates from French as ‘let them do it’, and means that individuals and businesses should be free from state intervention as much as possible.
Vote freely
MPs are often told how to vote by their party. The people in charge of ensuring this happens are MPs called ‘whips’, who take their name from the riding sticks used to goad animals. A three-line-whip is the most important vote to turn up to, named after the underlining on the order paper (three underlinings). A free vote, not along party lines, is traditionally reserved for matters of conscience.
Children’s commissioner
More than 130 organisations campaigned for 13 years for a children’s commissioner in England and the post was finally established in 2004. Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland each have their own children’s commissioner. The purpose of the role is to promote the voice of children and young people, especially those who would otherwise have no representation.


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