Is Smoking Around Children a Form of Child Abuse?

Cigarette smoking is a form of child abuse, says one of the nation’s leading child abuse experts, and it’s high time we recognize it as such.

“More young children are killed by parental smoking than by all unintentional injuries combined,” says James Garbarino, an internationally recognized expert on child protection and the director of Cornell University’s Family Life Development Center. These deaths include almost 3,000 annually due to low birth weight, 2,000 due to Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, and another 1,300 attributed to respiratory infection, asthma, and burns, according to researchers in the Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine.

The study confirms that children of smokers also are more likely to become smokers themselves and thus be exposed to the numerous adverse, direct effects of smoking. The pediatric findings should cause us to consider where smoking fits into larger issues of child protection, said Garbarino, author of two related books: Raising Children in a Socially Toxic Environment and Understanding Abusive Families. “Let’s call it what it is: Parental smoking is child abuse,” he stressed.

Garbarino takes the position that before any parental act qualifies as child abuse or neglect and thus falls within the jurisdiction of the state, it must meet three conditions. First, there must be a basis in scientific knowledge or professional expertise that a particular practice is harmful or dangerous to children. Second, there must be a public debate stimulated by child advocates to use the new knowledge as a basis for challenging what has been regarded as normal and acceptable child rearing. Third, community values must adapt by accepting a new standard of care for children.

“This is the way things work in child protection. What was once normal becomes first unwise, then only acceptable and, finally, illegal,” Garbarino said. “Child abuse and neglect is a matter of a constantly negotiated settlement between science and professional expertise on the one hand and community values and culture on the other. There is always a time and place to change the definition, to raise the standard of care.”

“When it comes to parental smoking, the time and place are here and now,” Garbarino said. “It’s time to use the anti-smoking consensus to move on behalf of the next generation and ban smoking in the presence of children as part of society’s efforts to protect children.”

“Would cracking down on exposing children to smoking make a difference? We know from decades of research on child abuse and neglect that it takes time and effort to make a difference in the treatment received by children at the hands of their parents,” Garbarino said. “A strong public effort to recognize the abusive nature of parental smoking would force the professional community to come out of the closet on this issue.”

“Let’s end the charade that second-hand smoke is not harmful to kids. It’s time to recognize parental smoking as child abuse,” Garbarino concluded.

Editor’s Note: To get involved with reducing smoke-related harm to children and convincing them that the use of tobacco is unacceptable, demand that school boards ban all tobacco products from schools, school board offices, and athletic events. Contact your state Delegates and Senators and your U.S. Congress members and Senators to support legislation to ban smoking in vehicles and all public places where children are present. Last but not least, do not allow anyone to smoke around your children in confined vehicles or buildings and require anyone babysitting your children to refrain from smoking.

Remember, children cannot protect themselves from deadly toxins. We all have to watch out for them.


The following is the text of legislation proposed by Delegate Joe Morrisey to protect children from second-hand smoke. The bill failed to make it out of sub-committee due to tobacco interests.

Be it enacted by the General Assembly of Virginia:

1. That the Code of Virginia is amended by adding a section numbered 15.2-2824.1 as follows:

§ 15.2-2824.1. Smoking in vehicle with a child present; penalty for violation. 

A. Smoking shall be prohibited in a motor vehicle, whether in motion or at rest, in which a child under the age of 13 is present. 

B. No assignment of demerit points shall be made under Article 19 (§ 46.2-489 et seq.) of Chapter 3 of Title 46.2 and no court costs shall be assessed for violations of this section. A violation of this section may be charged on the uniform traffic summons form. 

C. No citation for a violation of this section shall be issued unless the officer issuing such citation has cause to stop or arrest the driver of such motor vehicle for the violation of some other provision of this Code or local ordinance relating to the operation, ownership, or maintenance of a motor vehicle or any criminal statute. 

D. Any person who violates this section shall be subject to a civil penalty of $100. Civil penalties assessed under this section shall be paid into the Virginia Health Care Fund established under § 32.1-366. 

If you support protecting children from the toxic injuries caused by second-hand smoke in enclosed vehicles, please contact the following state representatives who are key to the passage of the above legislation:

Del. Joe Morrissey (sponsor of bill)
804-698-1074
DelJMorrissey@house.virginia.gov
Del. James Shuler
540-953-1103
DelJShuler@house.virginia.gov
Del. Bill Carrico
276-236-0098
DelCCarrico@house.virginia.gov
Del. Ben Cline
434-946-9908
DelBCline@house.virginia.gov
Speaker Bill Howell
540-371-1612
delwhowell@house.virginia.gov
Del. Annie B. Crockett-Stark
276-227-0247
DelACrockett-Stark@house.virginia.gov
Del. Clay Athey
540-635-2123
DelCAthey@house.virginia.gov
Del. Terry Kilgore
276-386-7011
DelTKilgore@house.virginia.gov
Senator Phillip Puckett
276-979-8181
district38@senate.virginia.gov
Del. Todd Gilbert
540-459-7550
DelTGilbert@house.virginia.gov
Del. Bud Phillips
276-762-9758
DelBPhillips@house.virginia.gov
Senator William Wampler, Jr.
276-669-7515
district40@senate.virginia.gov
Del. Bill Cleveland
540-992-4041
DelWCleaveland@house.virginia.gov
Del. Will Morefield
276-345-4300
DelJMorefield@house.virginia.gov
Del. Todd Pillion
(276) 220-1209
DelTPillion@house.virginia.gov