What do car smoking bans have to do with class discrimination, you may be asking. Actually, quite a bit, I will argue.
First, consider these two parental behaviors, and tell me which one is more irresponsible:
A. Parent A drives an SUV on the highway at 75 miles per hour with her kid in the back seat. She has one hand on the steering wheel and one hand holding a cell phone, upon which she is having a heated conversation that is distracting her attention away from the road and the traffic hazards.
B. Parent B drives a small coupe down the highway at 60 miles per hour with her kid in the back seat. She has one hand on the steering wheel and is smoking a cigarette. The windows are open. She has her eyes on the road and is paying attention to traffic hazards. She is not distracted from what is happening in the path of her car. Her child does not have asthma.
To be sure, parent B is exposing her child to an increased risk of adverse health effects from the secondhand smoke. But the magnitude of that increased risk is relatively small. And if health effects do occur, they will not be terribly severe. There is a small increased risk of the child coming down with an ear infection or upper respiratory infection due to the secondhand smoke exposure during the course of the car trip.
In contrast, parent A is exposing her child to an increased risk of death from a fatal car accident. The magnitude of that increased risk is not all that small. If an accident does occur, it will likely be very severe, possibly even fatal. There is a reasonable chance that the child would die if such an accident occurred.
While both parents are exposing their kids to increased risk of an adverse health consequence, one could argue that parent A is acting less responsibly because the incremental risk of getting into a traffic accident from talking on a cell phone is far from negligible and the likely consequence of such an accident would be severe injury or death for the child. The incremental risk of an ear infection or upper respiratory infection for parent B's child is rather small, and the severity of such a consequence is obviously much less than that of a traffic accident.
While health groups are now issuing widespread calls for regulating parent B's behavior, making it a crime, and allowing the authorities to put the parent in jail as a high-end punishment, these same health groups are not calling for regulating parent A's behavior, making it a crime, and allowing the authorities to put parent A in jail as a high-end punishment.
While some might see this inconsistency as merely a curious discrepancy, I see it as a form of class discrimination. I honestly believe that the explanation for the differential treatment of the behavior of these two parents is the class difference between them. I think that health advocates who are supporting car smoking bans are viewing the unhealthy behaviors of parents from one social class group (smokers) to be far worse than equally unhealthy behavior of parents from a higher social class group (wealthy families who can afford to drive their kids around to and from soccer practice in an SUV).
These soccer moms and dads are most likely not smoking in cars with their children, but they sure as hell are putting their lives at risk when they talk on a cell phone while speeding down the highway with them. So how can we view the former as a crime potentially punishable by a jail sentence and the latter as simply a poor, but legal, behavior choice on the part of a parent?
The answer is that we are able to view these parents' behavior differently because of the social class difference. We treat them differently based on social class. In other words, this is a form of class discrimination.
We do not equally respect the parental autonomy and parental behavior choices of smokers and wealthy cell phone addicts when we aim to criminalize one but not the other. The differential respect afforded to parents in the two situations is based on their social class, and is therefore class discrimination.
Smokers have become a social class whose personal autonomy and behavior choices are not respected in the same way that we respect the autonomy and behavior choices of other groups, especially wealthier classes.
While proponents of car smoking bans may not realize it, and certainly they are not doing it consciously, I believe that they are inadvertently falling into class discriminatory thinking in their singular preoccupation with the relatively minor incremental risks of exposing kids to secondhand smoke while driving short distances in a car, while ignoring the far more serious risks of smoking for long periods of time in a home or of talking on a cell phone while driving kids around.
In the first case, the failure to aim to regulate smoking in the home reveals a respect for parental privacy and autonomy in the home which is apparently not respected for this group of parents in their own cars. In the second case, the failure to aim to regulate cell phone use while driving kids around at the same time as banning cigarette use while driving reveals a respect for the parental privacy and autonomy of one group but not for the other.
So the next time someone asks you the connection between car smoking bans and class discrimination, you can tell them the rest of the story.