Anti-smoking activists who are driving cigarettes from public places across the country are now targeting private homes — especially those with children.
Their efforts so far have contributed to regulations in three states — Maine, Oklahoma and Vermont — forbidding foster parents from smoking around children. Parental smoking also has become a critical point in some child-custody cases, including ones in Virginia and Maryland.
In a highly publicized Virginia case, a judge barred Caroline County resident Tamara Silvius from smoking around her children as a condition for child visitation.
Mrs. Silvius, a waitress at a truck stop in Doswell, Va., calls herself “highly disappointed” with the court’s ruling.
“I’m an adult. Who is anybody to tell me I can’t smoke or drink?” she said in an interview yesterday.
An appeals court upheld the ruling, but not before one judge raised questions about the extent to which a court should become involved in parental rights and whether certain behavior is harmful or simply not in a child’s best interest.
Mrs. Silvius says she complied with the decision by altering her smoking habits.
“My children know not to come around when I’m on the front porch with my morning coffee, tending to my cows or out in my garden, because I’m having a cigarette,” she said.
Still, she thinks this was not a matter for the courts because it was not proven that she posed a risk to her children’s health.
“If a child suffers from asthma or some sort of problem, the courts shouldn’t even have to be told to [step in],” Mrs. Silvius said. “That should be the parent’s better judgment. But my kids aren’t sick. If there’s no health issue, it isn’t the court’s place to say someone can’t do something that’s perfectly legal, just because the other spouse doesn’t want them to.”
The smoking-at-home issue also sparked debate about whether such rulings will lead courts to become involved in such matters as parents’ making poor TV programming choices for their children.
The nonprofit group Action on Smoking and Health is among the most outspoken on stopping parents from smoking around children.
“Children are the most vulnerable and the most defenseless victims of tobacco smoke,” Executive Director John F. Banzhaf III said. “They should be entitled to the same protection as adults.”
Mr. Banzhaf, also a professor of public interest law at George Washington University, said most complaints are made by nonsmoking ex-spouses, although some are filed by neighbors, relatives and physicians.
Maryland’s Department of Human Resources, which provides adoption services, considers smoking a factor in deciding who will receive a child, but guidelines do not specifically address the issue.
“It’s discussed and presented and looked at by caseworkers,” said Judith Eveland, a program manager for the agency.
However, Miss Eveland said the agency would welcome regulations on restricting smoking in the homes of foster children.
“We certainly would be supportive [given] all the health issues associated with smoking,” she said.
Adele L. Abrams, an attorney in Prince George’s County specializing in child custody, divorce and family law, said smoking has been a factor in several custody disputes in recent years.
“Restraints might be put on visitation if one parent insists upon smoking or bringing in a girlfriend or boyfriend who smokes,” said Ms. Abrams, whose practice serves the District and Anne Arundel, Baltimore, Howard and Montgomery counties.
She said children have a “more protective status” and that laws should protect children from secondhand smoke just as they are protected from parents and guardians who drink excessively or use drugs.
“Frankly, if it was a factor before the divorce, it’s going to be a factor after the divorce,” she said, “particularly if the child has asthma or some other respiratory disease.”
Mindy Good, spokeswoman for the D.C. Child and Family Services Agency, said foster parents are not prohibited from smoking, but prospective ones are screened to fit a child’s best interests.
“People who smoke are not barred from becoming foster parents,” she said. “However, we are careful about children who have certain medical conditions. We would not, for example, place a child who has asthma in the home of a smoking foster parent. We are careful about those issues.”