Editorial: Children of smokers deserve some protection

Last modified: Thursday, February 19, 2015
New Hampshire has a long history of refusing to protect its residents from their worst impulses on the road. Drivers can opt out of wearing seatbelts, and motorcyclists can turn down helmets. Individuals should be free to make their own choices goes the thinking – even if those choices end up being harmful.

But that freedom isn’t unlimited. That’s why New Hampshire recently barred the use of handheld cell phones while driving. A driver’s right to yak on his or her phone ends where another driver’s bumper begins. And that’s why a new bill meant to prevent parents from smoking in cars with their children seems like a good idea.

The proposal isn’t at variance with the state’s libertarian ethos. In fact, it protects the individual liberty of every person inside a vehicle.

Let’s pause for a moment to restate the obvious: Smoking is terrible. It poses well-known hazards to smokers and their loved ones in the form of lung cancer and cardiovascular disease. But smoking has even more wide-ranging effects. A study published this month in the New England Journal of Medicine concluded that smokers put themselves at higher risk for numerous other problems, including infections and intestinal disease.

It’s against this backdrop that the legislation – SB 162 – has been introduced. A hearing hasn’t been scheduled, but the House and Senate should ultimately support the proposed law. It’s good for all the state’s residents, young and old.

The bill itself is simple, calling only for drivers not to smoke in cars with passengers under the age of 18. The punishment is a simple fine of $100. Finally, and most importantly, the bill itself states: “Enforcement of this section by law enforcement agencies shall be accomplished only as a secondary action when a driver of a motor vehicle has been cited or charged with a violation or some other offense.” In other words, drivers can’t be pulled over simply because they’re smoking.

This seems like the right balance. Police officers don’t need to chase an entirely new class of lawbreaker. But if the occasion arises, it seems entirely appropriate that parents who smoke receive a warning from the state. Putting one’s children at risk through secondhand smoke, especially given what we now know about the health risks, is unconscionable.

Some will no doubt criticize the bill for trampling on individual rights. But that only counts if the individuals in question are the adults with cigarettes. The right of the young passengers in these cars to grow up healthy and disease-free must be given equal weight.

The state cannot – and should not – solve the problem of smoking on its own. It does have the opportunity, though, to suggest its residents and future taxpayers make healthier choices. That opportunity should be seized.