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Qaseem: Smoking around children should be illegal

Yaqoob Qaseem, Columnist

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Thankfully, we live in a society where people go to jail for harming others. If an individual decided to rampage through the streets dousing innocent bystanders with caustic acid, he would undoubtedly be subjected to severe legal penalties. Somehow, though, parents who choose to smoke around children seem to discretely circumvent the fundamental restriction on inflicting harm on others. They envelop their kids in a cloud of life-threatening chemicals while, in many cases, fearing no legal repercussions whatsoever.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, tobacco smoke contains 7,000 chemicals, approximately 70 of which are known carcinogens. However, the dangers posed by smoking around children extend well beyond increased cancer risk. Babies exposed to secondhand smoke are more likely to die from sudden infant death syndrome and to have weaker lungs, a condition leading to further health problems. Secondhand smoke also leads to an increase in frequency and severity of asthma attacks, ear infections, acute respiratory infections and other respiratory problems in children. A recent study found non-hygienic parental smoking multiplied the risk of children developing heart disease as adults by four.

Secondhand smoke also reaches approximately 40 percent of U.S. children ages 3 to 11, according to the CDC. Exposure mostly occurs at home, where children are effectively trapped in a cesspit of toxic chemicals with no options for escape.

The detrimental effects of secondhand smoke on children are substantial and diverse, and research continues to uncover more perils. In light of the clear harm inflicted upon children by parental smoking, the difference between parental smoking and the hypothetical use of acid to burn innocent bystanders centers on a single factor: awareness. A person who covers another in a liquid he knows is toxic has no excuse, while a person who degrades the health of another unknowingly may indeed be less blameworthy despite committing an atrocity.

The concept of awareness highlights the central importance of education in public health situations. According to the CDC, no level of secondhand smoke is safe, and smoke from outside can even slip through small spaces to affect children inside. Knowledge of these sinister characteristics of secondhand smoke may not be commonplace.

Nonetheless, what better way to instill such knowledge than by imposing legal restrictions on parental smoking around children? With awareness being a potential concern, the laws need not impose a penalty on first-time offenders. Rather, initial infractions of the law could merit a warning facilitating the education of perpetrators on secondhand smoke. Subsequent violations would then warrant a higher form of legal action to uphold the societal restriction on harming others. Such laws could serve as a vehicle for education and justice, potentially withdrawing a significant number of helpless children from the hazards of secondhand smoke.

Starting this October, England will enforce a ban on smoking in cars with children. Violators will be subject to a fine equivalent to $77. A similar law exists in Wales and in some parts of Canada, Australia and the United States. Based on the earlier statistic that children are most exposed to secondhand smoke at home, the ban in cars is insufficient and must be taken further.

Consider the restriction of smoking in public facilities in many U.S. states. In public locations, all present individuals have the choice to leave if a smoker is present. They are not forced to expose themselves to the detrimental effects of secondhand smoke. Nonetheless, many governments took note of the heavy risks posed by secondhand smoke and justly chose to make the harm of others illegal.

Children of smokers have no choice but to reside in their homes. They are subjected day after day to chemicals that cause infections, cancer, heart disease and respiratory problems, with little hope of respite. Child abuse is already illegal, and we must keep it illegal by imposing legal penalties for smoking around children.

Yaqoob Qaseem is a Weinberg freshman. He can be reached at yaqoobqaseem2018@u.northwestern.edu. If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to opinion@dailynorthwestern.com.

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