Safeguarding children’s wellbeing through protection from tobacco smoke

11 July 2019

The protection of children from exposure to tobacco smoke is strongly embedded in the provisions and spirit of the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (WHO FCTC). Already in its Preamble, the Convention clearly acknowledges the scientific evidence that prenatal exposure to tobacco smoke causes adverse health and developmental conditions for children. This acknowledgement is part and parcel of a broader recognition by the 181 Parties of the WHO FCTC that exposure to tobacco smoke causes death, disease and disability and of their commitment to adopt and implement measures providing for protection from exposure to tobacco smoke, in Article 8 of the WHO FCTC.

The severe adverse impact of exposure to tobacco smoke on children was brought to light by WHO in a 2001 report dedicated to tobacco and the rights of the child . WHO stressed that there was no safe level of exposure to environmental tobacco smoke and that the negative effect of exposure on children was two-fold. One, exposure to tobacco smoke may seriously harm the health of a child. Second, it may drive a child to later engage in smoking behaviour. In a recent corroborating study, WHO pointed out in relation to this second, often unrecognized, effect, that some children start to smoke as early as 11 years.

Tobacco kills more than 8 million people each year and of these, around 1.2 million are the result of non-smokers being exposed to second-hand smoke. Almost half of children regularly breathe air polluted by tobacco smoke in public places and each year 65,000 children die from illnesses attributable to second-hand smoke.

The Parties to the WHO FCTC have sought, as one of their early priorities, to gain understanding of how best to implement measures for protection from tobacco smoke. At its second session in 2007, the Conference of the Parties (COP) adopted guidelines for implementation of Article 8 of the WHO FCTC. The guidelines underscore that the duty to protect from tobacco smoke, embodied in the text of Article 8, is grounded in fundamental human rights and freedoms. Similarly to the Preamble of the WHO FCTC, they refer to the Convention of the Rights of the Child, among other international human rights instruments, in the context of the right to life and the right to the highest attainable standard of health.

As reported in the 2018 Global Progress Report, 91% of all Parties had implemented measures to protect their citizens from exposure to tobacco smoke by applying a complete or partial ban on tobacco smoking in indoor workplaces, public transport, indoor public places and other public places. A positive trend was observed in banning smoking in private cars in the presence of children, enforced by 40% of Parties that have smoking bans. Finland, France, Luxembourg, Malta, Qatar and Slovenia enacted bans on smoking in cars when minors are present, and the Republic of Korea enacted a ban on smoking in multi-family housing.

The report goes to highlight that countries such as Barbados, Croatia, Finland, Georgia, Luxembourg, Norway, Poland, Portugal and Slovenia amended their smoking bans to cover new and emerging tobacco products. For instance, in 2017 Luxembourg prohibited smoking and vaping in sports arenas where children below the age of 16 are performing sports, as well as in vehicles when children below the age of 12 are present. Vaping in play areas for children was also banned.

The evolution of novel and emerging tobacco products is an issue that the COP is keen on addressing. In decision FCTC/COP8(22), the COP reminded Parties about their commitments under the WHO FCTC when addressing the challenges posed by novel and emerging tobacco products. Parties are called to protect people from exposure to their emissions and to explicitly extend the scope of smoke-free legislation to these products in accordance with Article 8 of the WHO FCTC.

The WHO FCTC objective embraces the need to protect present and future generations from exposure to tobacco smoke. Tobacco control measures taking into account the vulnerability of children to the harm of tobacco smoke and new risks such as novel tobacco products are instrumental to meeting that objective.