Should Smoking in Passenger Vehicles be Banned?

The dangers of environmental tobacco smoke (ETS) have been well-documented. Environmental tobacco smoke has been associated with increased risk for not only asthma and ear infections, but also with meningitis and sudden infant death syndrome. Young children are particularly susceptible to these ill-effects. The risk is not limited to second-hand smoke, however. Third-hand smoking occurs when an individual is exposed to an environment in which someone has been, but is not currently, smoking.

Quoting from the Pediatrics article "Beliefs About the Health Effects of 'Thirdhand' Smoke and Home Smoking Bans" by Jonathan P. Winickoff, MD, MPH et al: "Research has documented the association between smoking in the home and persistently high levels of tobacco toxins well beyond the period of active smoking. These toxins take the form of particulate matter deposited in a layer onto every surface within the home; in loose household dust; and as volatile toxic compounds that 'gas' into the air over days, weeks, and months."

Knowing this, the Royal College of Physicians in the United Kingdom has called for a smoking ban in vehicles. The goal is to protect children, who are unable to advocate for themselves when riding in cars in which adults choose to smoke. I couldn't agree more! As parents and physicians, we have a responsibility to advocate for the health of all children, who don't have a say in whether they are exposed to the damaging effects of ETS. They are completely dependent upon the decisions we make, and permit others to make.

Without an outright ban on smoking, we cannot legislate what happens within the home. However, there are municipalities within the U.S. that have proposed classifying smoking in a vehicle carrying minors as a secondary offense, meaning that although a police officer cannot stop you for smoking, they can cite you for smoking if you are pulled over for another reason. It's a start, but this only addresses the risks of second-hand, and not third-hand smoke. (Anyone who's stepped into a taxi where the cabbie had been recently smoking knows where I'm coming from.)

Perhaps I am in the minority, but I view ETS as a child-endangerment issue. Given the documented risks of third-hand smoke and the exquisite susceptibility of young children to it, why should we tolerate anything less than a ban on smoking in vehicles altogether? Of course, there are those who argue that such a ban would be an affront to personal liberty.

My argument: why should your "right" to smoke trump your child's right to breathe clean air?

What do you think? In the United States, could a ban on smoking in vehicles ever be enforecable?


  1. Great post, as always. To your question of whether such a ban would be enforceable I'd say the enforceability is a secondary question to whether you could ever get the law passed. It would at best be a state by state issue (if not broken down by city or county) and there are states that have a much higher tolerance for smoking than others (think Michigan vs California). I couldn't agree with you more that it's a serious issue, the effects are well documented and there's no question that children shouldn't be exposed, but it would realistically be a decades-long legislative battle. Let's remember it's still perfectly legal to smoke in the car with children present at the time here. Higher success likely lies through educational efforts and PR campaigns to spread the word to parents on this danger.


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