If you smoke in cars with kids you'll cough up a fine

Today, I introduced a Bill to prohibit smoking in cars with children. The new laws Smoking in Cars with Children (Prohibition) Bill 2011 can be found here http://www.legislation.act.gov.au/b/db_42926/default.asp.

I think we can all recall being young children and sitting in car with our grandparents or parents smoking. I remember it well and it was pretty unpleasant and that was before there was a full understanding of how harmful the effects of environmental tobacco smoke actually were. In 2011 however, we have a very good understanding of passive smoking and what it causes – asthma, bronchitis, pneumonia and in the long term cardiovascular disease and cancer.

Children are even more susceptible to smoke’s harmful effects due to their smaller lung capacity, body weight and undeveloped immune system.

Research has shown that the air quality when smoking in the confined space of a car, even with the windows rolled down, can rival the smokiest pub environments prior to the ACT ban on smoking in pubs in 2006.

We have been working on these laws for some time because whilst the decision to introduce the laws banning smoking in cars with children was an easy decision to take,  we needed to resolve issues around how to enforce the laws and who should be captured by the laws. As someone who has been in the development of many Bills in my time, this one has presented me as Minister for Health with some difficult dilemma’s to resolve

Firstly, the intention of this Bill is essentially to send a clear public health message to the community. Should these laws be administered by public health authorities, by regulatory services or by ACT Police. There were arguments for and against each of these. In the end though we decided that the police would be the best people to administer the laws as they are the ones out on the road and the most likely to be in a position to identify someone offending against these laws.

Secondly, we wanted to make sure that a person who offended against these laws would not be placed in a position where the non-payment of a fine issued under these laws would have automatically cancelled their license and car rego or lost people points against their license.  This is what happens for other traffic infringements and we needed to separate these laws out of that system. We have done that by the offence being dealt with through the issuing of on-the-spot fine by ACT Police.

Thirdly, at what age do you define a child for the purpose of these laws? The common legal definition of a child is someone under the age of 18. For these laws, however, we know that 17yr old’s can be in charge of a motor vehicle. Clearly if the legal definition of child for the purposes of these laws remained at 18  we could face the situation where a 17yr old driver, who might (unfortunately) be a smoker driving alone could potentially have been captured by these laws – both as the driver and the child. Not ideal, so these laws define a child as someone under the age of 16. Of course, under these laws, it will be possible to have a 17yr old driver smoking with a 15 ½ yr old passenger and they can be fined in that situation.

Whilst I have already heard the comments “over regulation” and “nanny state” being used by some to describe these laws it is clear that these laws do change behaviour. In the year after the South Australian laws had passed a review found that there was a 13% reduction in the number of smokers that smoked in a vehicle when a child was present from 31% to 18%. Additionally 75% of Canberran’s surveyed in 2009 supported this type of law reform.

Its also pleasing to see smoking rates continue to decline overall, particularly amongst our young people. The ACT has the nations lowest smoking rates at 16.3% of the population. Still too high but improving.

Once these laws pass we will undertake a 6 month education campaign to make sure that everyone understand the existence of the new laws and what they are about before the laws formally commence. Again my decision to do this is based on the fact that these laws are primarily about sending out a public health message. We don’t want people to smoke in cars with children, we don’t want to fine people – we want these laws to change behaviour.

Interview with Ross Solly – ABC Radio