Father arrested for smoking near infant?

Consider:

A young rural father was recently arrested and charged with felony child endangerment for smoking in the presence of his infant son. Police called to the home to investigate a domestic disturbance observed the father smoking cigarettes although a 6 week old infant was present in the same room.

Officers responding to the home reported that the smoking was a chronic problem. One noted that the home positively “reeked” of stale smoke indicating an long term, ongoing habit.

Parental smoking is known to increase risk of infant wheezing, respiratory disease and even death. As the police chief pointed out, “increasing the risk of infant death is clear evidence of felony child neglect. Our officers had no choice but arrest the father and file charges.”

If convicted, the father faces up to 5 years in prison.

This incident never happened, but it ought to happen all the time if the case of Stacey Anvarinia, the woman arrested for breastfeeding while drunk, is a precedent. I was quoted in a recent Associated Press article about this case, expressing outrage that a young woman was arrested for a made-up crime. The reaction to my comments indicate that many people feel that Ms. Anvarinia got what she deserved.

Why then would the same people would probably recoil in horror at the idea of arresting men who smoke in the presence of their infants? Fundamentally, it is the result of the American inability to understand relative risk.

Most Americans unthinkingly accept all sorts of risks that are familiar, while simultanously expressing outsize alarm at risks that are trivial in comparison. We like to pretend that we would never expose our infants to risk, but simply putting them into a car to drive to the store represents a risk far larger than the risk posed by breastfeeding while drunk (which is merely theoretical) or the risk of smoking in the presence of an infant (which is an all too real risk of illness and death).

Simply put, some risks, though large, are judged to be acceptable, while others, trivially small or non-existant, excite outrage. Those who throwing proverbial stones at Ms. Anvarinia for breastfeeding while drunk are living in glass houses. Many routinely expose their own infants to the far greater risk of travelling in a car.

Unfortunately, there’s an element of discrimination, too. The risk that smoking poses to an infant is far greater than any theoretical risk of breastfeeding while drunk. Yet I suspect that people would react with outrage at the idea of a smoker being arrested for smoking in the presence of his or her infant. Smoking is socially acceptable, while breastfeeding, for all its known benefits, is still considered slightly strange and suspect.

We need to be honest with ourselves about our own prejudices. When it comes to children and risk, we cannot pretend that we are unwilling to accept risk, because the reality is that we consider some risks, even large risks, acceptable. Moreover, we treat some risks as acceptable because they are socially acceptable. Smoking in the presence of an infant is more dangerous than breastfeeding while drunk. Unless we are willing to arrest and charge parents who smoke in the presence of their infants, we should stop self-righteously condemning Ms. Anvarinia.

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