By Jean Balchin 07/07/2017

New evidence shows one in five children continue to be exposed to smoking in cars. Exposure even increased in 2015.

According to Action on Smoking and Health New Zealand (ASH), secondhand smoke (SHS) consists of the smoke that is either exhaled by the smoker, or that is given of by the burning tobacco and released into the air. This SHS contains over 50 cancer causing chemicals, plus other toxic substances that are often in greater concentrations than the smoker inhales. These chemicals include acetone (paint stripper); ammonia (toilet cleaner); cyanide (rat killer); and carbon monoxide (car exhaust fumes). The health effects of SHS for children include increased risk of respiratory tract infections, exacerbations of asthma and glue ear.

Led by the University of Otago, Wellington, the research analysed recent trends in children’s SHS exposure in cars using updated (2013–2015) data from ASH surveys of Year 10 students. These surveys were conducted between 2006 and 2015, and involved between 19,000 and 29,500 students. The students were asked whether, in the past week, others had smoked around them in a car or van.

Action on Smoking and Health New Zealand.

According to Professor Richard Edwards, from the University of Otago, Wellington and co-director of the ASPIRE2025 research collaboration, these findings show that the exposure of children to smoking in cars is unacceptably high. In 2015, the number of students being exposed to SHS increased, with close to one third of Māori students and over a quarter of Pacific students reporting being in a car with someone smoking in the past week.

“If the levels of exposure reported in 2015 in the survey applied to all Year 10 students, we estimate that almost 12,000 14–15 year-olds were exposed to smoking in cars each week in that year,” Professor Edwards says.

The October 2015 Petition:

A petition presented to Parliament by Patu Puauahi Tai Tokerau/Smokefree Northland in October 2015 prompted a Health Select Committee investigation and the subsequent recommendation that the Government introduce legislation or other measures to ban smoking in cars carrying children under the age of 18 years.

In March 2017, the Government issued a response to the Health Select Committee, acknowledging the serious health risks of SHS, and the importance of protecting children from these harms. However, the Government rejected the recommendation to introduce legislation to ban smoking in cars carrying children on the grounds that “present initiatives are sufficient to deter smoking in cars carrying children under the age of 18 years”.

The authors of the this study however question the extent of ‘current initiatives’ to reduce smoking in cars, noting that the only sustained national non-legislative intervention was a mass media campaign that ran from 2006–2008. There have been no sustained national interventions on smokefree cars since 2008. However, there has been intermittent implementation of the previous campaign in 2012 and 2013, and occasional local or regional initiatives supported by community partnership grants.

NZ doesn’t measure up

Professor Edwards comments “Levels of second-hand smoke in cars are very high, making SHS exposure in cars a particularly severe health hazard for children. Many countries, including the UK and states and provinces in Australia, Canada and America, have introduced legislation to prohibit smoking in cars where children are present. So, New Zealand is falling well short of international best practice on protecting children from this completely avoidable harm.”

The evidence from this study suggests that exposure to SHS through smoking in cars continues to be a significant health hazard for many thousands of kiwi school students and children, particularly for Māori and Pacific children. The researchers encourage the Government to reconsider its decision and introduce smokefree cars legislation in order to protect children from the adverse health effects of SHS exposure and help reduce inequalities in health among children.

The research was published in the New Zealand Medical Journal this week.