Banning smoking in cars with kids is illiberal and won’t work

A new law banning smoking in cars with children (people under 18) has come into force this month in England and Wales, but despite its good intentions it won’t achieve its aim and is a law that is incompatible with truly free society.

According to research cited by the BBC, smoking in cars has “declined considerably” in recent years. If this is true, which I suspect it is given that the percentage of the UK population that smokes has more than halved over the last three decades, then it suggests that parents have been responding to the information spread by awareness campaigns and have changed their behaviour accordingly.

This is reassuring because it confirms that complex social problems can be greatly reduced or solved through peaceful means such as awareness campaigns, and that the desire for social acceptance incentivizes people to change their behaviour.

There is always two kinds of argument against government action; the argument from ethics and the argument from effect. In other words, is the use of force morally justifiable and will it actually achieve its aim. Perhaps the easiest way to understand the argument from ethics is to think about it in the following way.

The only way to grant children the legal right to breathe smoke-free air whilst being driven in a car is to grant the State the right to violate the property rights of the accompanying adults – i.e. to prevent them from using their own property (i.e. cigarettes) in certain circumstances (i.e. in a car with children) through threats of fines or imprisonment.

If the only way to enforce any given proposed ‘right’ is to violate the proper rights of certain other people at certain times, then any laws based upon it cannot be just. The enforcement of laws against theft and murder, by comparison, does not require the violation of some people’s property rights. Which is precisely what makes laws against theft and violence justified and compatible with free society.

But so what if we infringe upon people’s freedoms in such seemingly trifling ways, the consequentialists among us may say. What negative consequences could that possibly have? Surely the benefit will outweigh any harm? Well, actually that’s not usually true, and this is where the argument from effect comes in.

Like all government intervention, this new law will have unintended consequences; it will increase the incentive for parents to behave in other ways that could be just as undesirable – i.e. harmful to children. If parents know they can’t smoke in the car, then they will probably just smoke at home the cigarettes they would have smoked in the car. They might even begin to smoke more than usual at home because of the uncertainty of how long any given car journey will take (especially in congested urban areas) and thus how long they will likely have to go without a cigarette.

Some parents will continue to smoke in their cars when ferrying their children about, but will now behave differently, i.e. drive less safely, as a result of not wanting to be fined. Instead of driving most of the time with both hands higher up on the steering wheel and simply holding the cigarette in one of them, smokers will now have a strong incentive to keep their cigarette holding hand out of sight at all times, which means lower down the wheel or off of the wheel entirely.

This behaviour and having to generally be concerned with keeping the cigarette out of sight means smoking parents will drive less safely and pay even less attention to the road, which coud lead to more accidents involving cars with children in – the very group of people this law is aimed at benefiting.

Furthermore, this new law will mean smoking parents are less likely to have the car window open whilst they smoke. Why? Because smoke coming out of the window and shoving one’s cigarette-holding hand out of it to tip ash out increases one’s chances of being seen by the police, a police camera or passers-by. Obviously, with no ventilation from an open window, more smoke will enter the child’s lungs than would otherwise be the case.

Every parent who values the pleasure of smoking whilst driving and avoiding a £50 fine more than they value avoiding potentially harming their child’s health, which now appears to be a minority, will be incentivized by this prohibition to behave in such ways that could easily end up exposing their child to the same amount or more second-hand smoke, and also increase the risk of car accidents.

This is what is known in the science of economics as the law of unintended consequences. Empirical evidence proving its validity can always be found. For example, research by the Highway Loss Data Institute in America shows that laws banning texting whilst driving, which most U.S. states now have, don’t reduce crashes but actually lead to a slight increase (it’s to do with paying even less attention to the road). To the consequentialist this will be highly counter-intuitive and hard to swallow, but it’s true.

Every parent who values avoiding harming their child’s health over the pleasure of smoking whilst driving, which seems now to be a majority, is already avoiding the behaviour we want them to avoid and so doesn’t need to be forced. Using the force of the law almost certainly won’t achieve its intended aim of reducing the harm done to children’s health by second-hand smoke, and could easily put children at risk in other ways.

Every time lawmakers introduce laws like this we demonstrate our lack of faith in freedom; our lack of faith in the majority of people to respond to reason and adjust their behaviour accordingly. It also signals our misplaced confidence in the efficacy of government action to solve complex social problems like second-hand smoke harming children’s health.

Only time will tell how comprehensively and stringently this new law can or will be enforced, but it will incentivize traffic police across Britain and Wales to focus their resources and efforts on times and places that parents are likely to be driving their children about – especially if they have targets to meet.

The new law banning smoking in cars with children has laid the logical groundwork for further expansion of the areas in which children’s ‘rights’ can be enforced, such as in people’s own homes, and thus it has inched society a little closer to becoming one that exists under totalitarian government. It surely won’t be too long before a future government Chief Medical Officer, health lobbyists and a majority of the public agree that children must have that right to breathe clean air in their own homes too.

For such a law to be meaningful and enforceable in any way, the government would require local police forces to have the capability to monitor or at the very least record all activity in private residences. Who knows, perhaps all cars in the future may be required to fit law enforcement cameras or smoke detectors in order to facilitate the enforcement of the law banning smoking in cars with children.

That’s really not as far-fetched as it might sound because this new law has laid the logical groundwork for further regression towards totalitarianism, although it will be perceived as the opposite by most.

The proliferation of the reason and evidence against smoking in the presence of children through various forms of voluntary cooperation and association has done a great job of changing the behaviour of parents and thus improving the early health of children.

The implementation of this new law banning smoking in cars will not increase the benefit to children we’ve already achieved through peaceful means, and is highly likely to disadvantage them in other ways that we didn’t foresee. And in the long run the creation of such laws only accelerates the regressive social process that will result in our children living in a less free society.

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