Growing up, my dad smoked, and so did nearly all of our family friends. It was the late 70s and early 80s. You could still smoke almost anywhere. When my parents hosted dinner parties, a thick smog of secondhand smoke would gather in the air over the table. Our car reeked of cigarettes. To this day, the smell of stale cigarette smoke makes me think of dozing off while my dad drove us home at night. It relaxes me, and makes me feel safe.
One thing I’m not nostalgic for, though, is the asthma I battled as a kid, or the chronic bronchitis I suffered every winter. Of course it never occurred to me as a child that my dad’s smoking might be to blame. As a teenager, a cyst on his throat scared him away from smoking. Years later, after a bout of walking pneumonia, my mom found cigarette smoke left her short of breath, and banned their friends from lighting up in the house.
In some states, it’s now illegal for parents to light up in cars the way my dad did. Other states have made it a crime for foster parents to smoke both in the car and in their homes. But one doctor recently suggested we need to go further. Adam Goldstein, an MD and professor in the Department Family Medicine at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine, argues that parents should not be allowed to smoke around children, period. And he’s calling on medical organizations to put pressure on legislators to label smoking a form of child abuse.
Goldstein says that we consider driving drunk with a kid in the car child abuse. So why shouldn’t we say the same about smoking? Kids who grow up in houses full of secondhand smoke, like I did, have asthma and respiratory problems, some of which, like pneumonia, require hospitalization.
I have a complicated response to this proposal. On the one hand, I know from experience how terrible it can be to grow up in a smoky house. To this day, I measure weak on lung capacity tests, despite being an avid runner in good shape. My dad’s smoking, which he began as a teen and didn’t stop till his early 40s, may have affected his long-term health. Did it take years off of my life too? And what about my mom, who now has similar issues with her respiratory health?
On the other hand, I bristle at the thought of calling my dad an abuser because he had an addiction to smoking. It was a different time. I honestly don’t think my dad would have kept smoking if he knew it was a major contributor to, if not the sole cause of, my asthma.
What’s more, I have trouble with the thought that the government can tell us what to do in our own homes. Today it’s cigarettes, what if tomorrow it’s soda and chips? Those cause diabetes. Should we ban parents from buying them too? We’re seeing all too clearly in Ferguson how race and class play a part in policing. I worry it would mostly be parents of color and parents living in poverty facing scrutiny over their smoking habits.
I am all in favor of replacing cigarette branding with messages and images about the damage that smoking does to our health (#JeffWeCan!). I love that New York City offers free resources to help people quit smoking, and wish that those were nationally available. And I think that public education should in particular target parents, so that they know the consequences of their actions on their children. Should smoking around a child in your own house be considered a crime, though, with potential court action and fines? That strikes me, a victim of secondhand smoke, as too extreme.
Should smoking around a child anywhere and at any time be considered child abuse?
Uh oh! Please try again later.