Smoking in Cars Carrying Children

Private Members’ Business – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 2:00 pm on 14th November 2011.

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Photo of Francie Molloy Francie Molloy Sinn Féin 2:00 pm, 14th November 2011

The Business Committee has agreed to allow up to one hour and 30 minutes for the debate. The proposer will have 10 minutes in which to propose the motion and 10 minutes in which to make a winding-up speech.

Photo of John McCallister John McCallister UUP

I beg to move

That this Assembly recognises the damaging effects of passive smoking; notes that children are particularly exposed to second-hand smoke; and calls on the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety to work closely with the Minister of Justice to bring forward legislation, in association with a public awareness campaign, to ban smoking in cars carrying passengers under the age of 16.

I am grateful to Members who will participate in the debate. My party and I believe that this is an important debate. There has been some suggestion that debates such as this are not relevant for the Assembly when there are pressing issues to do with the economy. To me, it is very relevant that we debate this type of public health issue.

Smoking kills more people in Northern Ireland than drugs, alcohol, obesity and car accidents combined, so it is right and proper that the Assembly take the issue very seriously and have this debate. We must try to move forward and determine how we will address the scourge of smoking and particularly the exposure of young children to second-hand smoke.

There are several strands to the debate. The long-established health risks from smoking have been well known for many years. It has also been known for a long number of years the extra harm that smoke does to a young body that is still developing as opposed to the harm that it does to an adult. That is why the motion is very relevant and why it is crucial that we have the debate. Smoke and the diseases that it can cause and make children more susceptible to are seriously harmful, as is the cost, not only the financial cost to our health service but the cost to individuals who will struggle with health problems for the rest of their life. In many cases, their life expectancy is cut short. It is well known that children who are exposed to second-hand smoke in cars or see a parent smoking regularly are much more likely to become smokers themselves. That is something that we should and must address. Over a number of years, we have had some success in addressing the scourge of smoking through a tobacco strategy and looking at tobacco controls and associated issues, and we need to build on that. Too many smokers still act irresponsibly around young children.

There are several areas that I want to examine. One of the main criticisms of this type of move is how it would be enforced. Most people are broadly in favour and supportive of it, but the big question is how it would be enforced. If we always considered that question, we might never legislate for anything. We need to work with the Departments of Health and Justice to examine what penalties there would be and how it would be enforced; that is where we have to begin. The police have said that they do not see a problem with enforcement. Looking at other issues that we have legislated on over the years such as seat belt wearing and car seats for young children, would anyone tell the Assembly that it has not made significant improvements to the safety of children and adults travelling in cars?

Photo of Basil McCrea Basil McCrea UUP 2:15 pm, 14th November 2011

On the point about enforcement, is the Member aware that 40% of drivers wore a seat belt before the seat belt law was passed but the figure rose to 90% once the law had been passed? A 1985 report estimated that those changes prevented 7,000 deaths or serious injuries and 13,000 slight casualties. Does he anticipate similar improvements if we could do something about the prevention of passive smoking?

Photo of John McCallister John McCallister UUP

I am grateful to my colleague for that point. Those are the types of argument that you hear when you want to legislate on something such as smoking in cars: that people act responsibly, that they would not do that and we should leave it up to the individual. Sometimes, the Government and the Assembly have to take that lead. We have to stand up and say that it is right that the Assembly legislate for this and it is right to send that very powerful message, as my colleague highlighted with the seat belt law. It is the same with seat belts and car safety seats for very young children. No one would dream now of bringing a baby home from hospital without having a proper car seat; in fact, I am not sure whether that is allowed. That is right and proper when you think of the damage that can be caused. The same argument can apply to this.

In wanting to progress with a private Member’s Bill, I approach the issue as someone who is broadly supportive of civil liberties. I do not like the idea of the nanny state. However, I do not think that it is right to say that we should not protect children who do not have a voice, such as a child of five years of age who does not know the risks of smoking and cannot tell a parent or adult that they should not smoke in the car in a confined space.

Some will ask what the point of the legislation is if we can ban smoking in the car but not in the home. The argument is that a car is a significantly smaller space than most people’s home. I send out the message strongly from here that, if you are a smoker, go outside and smoke; do not inflict it on your children and other family members. People talk about drinking alcohol in the home, but there is not the danger of fumes coming from alcohol in the way that they do from cigarette smoke.

I am all for encouraging people to act responsibly and to take personal responsibility, but sometimes the Assembly and the Government have to take the lead, such as in the very good example that my colleague Mr McCrea quoted about seat belt wearing. I feel very strongly about this issue, and I have spoken to the Bill Office about progressing a private Member’s Bill. I will be interested to hear the Minister’s response. It is an issue that has to be dealt with and faced up to, and it is one that we should all act on. From speaking to colleagues, I believe that there is very broad support for the measure not only in the House but among the wider public, who are saying that it is sensible that we take the issue seriously, legislate on it and do something to protect children from the harmful effects of second-hand smoke. The consequences include an increase in infant sudden death syndrome, an increase in the risk of meningitis, respiratory problems and children going on to become smokers themselves. It is right and proper that we send out that message.

As I said, enforcement is not an issue. Think about the important public health message that it would send out. Think about what it would do for the Northern Ireland Public Health Agency’s message on smoking and what it would say to people about the dangers of smoking. We do not want anyone to smoke; ideally, no one in our society would smoke. However, at least grown adults make a conscious decision. They make the decision knowing all the risk factors, having seen all the health warnings on cigarette packets and having heard all the issues that have been debated. They can still make a conscious decision, albeit the wrong one. Children do not have that choice. That decision is effectively taken away from them by others who act irresponsibly and put them in a position where they inhale second-hand smoke in a confined space. There is an idea that, if you put down the window, you somehow cleanse the inside of the car, but most of us know that the smell lasts for days. We really welcomed the ban on smoking in pubs, clubs and restaurants. Those who frequent such places know that it had a huge impact. I ask the Assembly to support the motion.

Photo of Francie Molloy Francie Molloy Sinn Féin

Bring your remarks to a close.

Photo of John McCallister John McCallister UUP

I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say. I look forward to the debate on an important issue. I will bring forward a private Member’s Bill if the Government do not legislate on the issue.

Photo of Jim Wells Jim Wells DUP

It is good news that the honourable Member for South Down will bring forward a private Member’s Bill, because he has a 100% success rate in that field.

Photo of John McCallister John McCallister UUP

Another press release.

Photo of Jim Wells Jim Wells DUP

I hope that he will not quote me on that in the local press.

There have already been light-hearted aspects to this debate, but there is also a deadly serious aspect. According to a written answer given by the then Health Minister Mr McGimpsey, last year, 2,300 people in Northern Ireland died as a direct result of smoking. The vast majority of those people died of lung cancer. Lung cancer is one of the most horrible, excruciatingly painful and dreadful deaths that anyone can imagine. Two secretaries of mine died recently of lung cancer. Both had been heavy smokers. I worked with both of those people, and what they went through was absolutely dreadful. We are dealing with something that can lead to a lot of very horrible deaths.

The other statistic that people need to remember is that 81% of smokers want to give up. They are desperate to give up. It is not a question of trying to force people to do something that they do not want to do. They want help to achieve their goal of being smoke-free. I am grateful to the Ulster Cancer Foundation for the stats, some of which are frightening. Each year, 300,000 children in the United Kingdom are referred to a GP as a result of the inhalation of tobacco smoke. That leads to 9,500 hospital visits per annum and a total cost to the National Health Service of £23·3 million. It is all so utterly needless.

I have no doubt that in today’s debate you will get those who will say that this is a terrible infringement of civil liberties, that this is the nanny state and that we are almost into a Nazi-type situation of forcing people not to do what they wish to do. However, we have been here before. We have heard those arguments with regard to the banning of smoking in pubs and restaurants — one of the best things that ever happened in Northern Ireland and one that I enthusiastically supported. When the smoking ban was obeyed with very little difficulty in a spit-and-sawdust pub in the west of County Mayo in the Irish Republic, it gave the United Kingdom confidence to follow suit, and a ban has been introduced in the four countries. We have not needed squads of enforcement officers calling at pubs and restaurants throughout Northern Ireland to enforce the ban. There has been a 99% compliance rate, and it has been voluntary. Once the legislation was introduced, smokers respected it, and they have not been smoking in pubs and restaurants. Indeed, how often do any of us read in our local newspapers about any pub or restaurant being prosecuted for allowing smoking?

If the legislation is introduced, as I hope it will be, either through the Minister or through a private Member’s Bill, I do not see police officers routinely stopping cars on motorways or dual carriageways to see whether there has been smoking or whether there is ash in the ashtray. It is more likely that large numbers of people will realise that it is illegal and will stop, and there will be enormous health benefits as a result. Equally, if someone is stopped for some other reason, perhaps for using a mobile phone or driving too fast, and the officer notices that he or she has been smoking, it may be added to the schedule of offences. However, I do not see it adding, to a huge degree, to the work of the Department of Justice and the Police Service of Northern Ireland.

We owe it to our children. Another alarming statistic is that second-hand smoke levels in cars can be as high as 10 times the concentration considered to be unhealthy by the American Environmental Protection Agency. That is a shocking statistic. It is unacceptable that we expose children — even children who may be being driven home from a hospital’s maternity ward — to that level of smoke. It must be stopped. I would welcome a ban, because I believe that we owe it to future generations.

All of this has a cost. We are in times of restricted budgets for the health service. Can we allow those who wish to give up smoking and need that impetus and encouragement to continue to add to the burden on our health service of having to treat the related conditions? The treatment is often very expensive and extremely serious. The sooner a ban is in place the better. I support the motion entirely.

Photo of Francie Molloy Francie Molloy Sinn Féin

Order. As Question Time commences at 2.30 pm, I suggest that the House takes its ease until then. The debate will continue after Question Time, when the next Member to speak will be Michelle Gildernew.

The debate stood suspended.