Friday 24 January 2020

Picture a car filled with second-hand smoke and child in the seat

Ex-smoker John Crown explains why he wants to ban smokers from lighting up inside cars with children present

John Crown

I AM a former smoker. I was addicted to tobacco products. I often reached for the cigarette first thing in the morning, and last thing at night. I smoked when I was a medical student, when I was a young doctor, and even when I was training to be a cancer specialist.

I wasn't alone in this. I remember a time when doctors smoked in hospitals. I remember consultants doing ward rounds with cigars in their mouths (in one famous case being followed by a dutiful nun carrying an ash tray).

I've known senior cardiologists, lung specialists and yes oncologists who smoked.

Sadly, I know some doctors and many nurses who still do. They all know/ knew it was bad for them. They all wanted to stop. Some could. Some couldn't. Some paid the ultimate price. Others will.

They were all addicts.

Addiction clouds your judgment. It makes you rationalise your behaviour. It makes all other considerations subservient to your need to get the next fix. I remember, with huge embarrassment, how intolerant my addiction made me of the desire of others not to be exposed to my passive smoke, something we now know to be hazardous. How could these fanatics dare to infringe my right to smoke in their presence? Why should I stand outside to smoke? If they don't want to be in a smoky junior doctors' sitting room, why don't THEY stand outside?

Such is the disordered thought process -- the "stinkin' thinkin'" of the addict. The overwhelming power of addiction must be borne in mind when considering the arguments of the opponents of anti-smoking regulations. Such opposition is now mobilising against the legislation that I, together with my colleagues, senators Mark Daly and Jillian van Turnhout, will be introducing into Seanad Eireann, legislation that -- by a simple short amendment to the existing smoking ban -- would extend it to include cars in which children are present.

The reasons for such a ban can be neatly summarised as follows:

• Second-hand and side-stream smoke are dangerous, and particularly dangerous for children.

• Smoking in cars produces high concentrations of dangerous chemicals.

• Some people who know these facts continue to smoke in cars with children.

Exposure to smoke increases the risk of childhood asthma, bronchitis and ear infections. It has effects on the heart and circulation. There is compelling evidence that it increases the risk of childhood cancer, which is not surprising given the documented high levels of multiple cancer-causing chemicals in tobacco smoke. These are facts -- not opinions. Cars are a uniquely hazardous environment. A smoky car has a level of pollution 30 times higher than the level at which the US environmental Protection Agency recommends fleeing indoors and closing windows. Passengers in a car are exposed to a 10-fold increase in smoke compared to firefighters fighting a brush fire.

An hour in a car with a smoker equals the smoke exposure of eight hours in a smoky pub. And yet we still see adults smoking in cars with children. They are usually their own children, children they love. Such is the power of addiction.

The existing law, introduced a decade ago by then health minister Micheal Martin was designed to protect workers from the ill effects of tobacco smoke in the workplace.

It has been a huge success and has moreover, provided a model and precedent for similar bans worldwide.

Our smoke-free bars, restaurants, shopping centres and hospitals are a testament to this visionary piece of public policy; a policy which, at the time of its proposal, prompted very considerable scepticism and opposition. Similar scepticism and opposition is being mounted to our legislation. Forest Eireann, a smokers' rights lobby, which receives funding from Forest UK -- themselves beneficiaries of support from the tobacco industry -- have been particularly vocal.

I have, however, heard no substantial objection from them or from anyone to the scientific evidence of the perils of smoke, but rather charges of 'nanny statism'. It's the old addiction thinkin' again.

Far from being a nanny statist, I have a very strong libertarian streak and would defend the rights of smokers to sate their addiction as long as no other individuals are harmed.

The problem is when others are harmed. The evidence that indirect smoking is harmful to bystanders is overwhelming. It is particularly hazardous for children whose rapid rate of breathing and smaller body size gives their systems much bigger dose of inhaled toxins.

Consider this paradox. At present it is illegal to smoke when you are alone in your company car. It is, however, perfectly legal to smoke in your private car with three children strapped into their seats.

Let me know your thoughts on this issue. Contact me on Twitter @ProfJohnCrown or email

You might also consider letting your TDs and senators know how you feel.

Senator John Crown is a consultant oncologist

Sunday Independent

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