A recent report revealed that the number of children in care in Scotland has increased by more than 50% in a decade.
There are now around 16,000 children and young people in Scotland who are “looked after”. So, mostly for reasons of care and protection, the local authority has a legal responsibility for their well-being.
ASH Scotland has recently researched how local authorities are going about protecting the children in their care from the harms of tobacco.
Looked-after young people are those subject to a supervision requirement at home, in “kinship care” with family, in fostering/adoption care, in a residential unit or school or in a secure unit.
Surveys suggest they are four times more likely to smoke than young people who are not looked after and there are increasing numbers in community care, where exposure to tobacco may be greater.
TOBACCO CONTROL POLICY
People most often become addicted to smoking at a young age and exposure to tobacco smoke is a particular health risk for children. If they’re in a smoking environment, it is much more likely children will experiment with and take up smoking.
So a robust tobacco control policy is vital to protect young people from a lethal and addictive substance that will kill half its long-term consumers when used as intended.
The results of our investigation tell us that Scotland must do more to protect looked-after young people from the dangers of smoking.
Our study found that potentially as many as half of Scotland’s councils do not have tobacco control policies for care services that deal with children.
We contacted all 32 local authorities to ask if they have measures in place to protect looked-after young people from the harms of tobacco, either from smoking themselves or being exposed to second-hand smoke from family members, adoptive and foster carers or staff in residential settings.
A total of 21 responded, but only 16 said they had a tobacco policy for looked-after young people. In addition, 93 local authority-run care services were contacted. A total of 70 were covered by local authority tobacco policies, three were not and 20 didn’t respond.
Elements of some current policies identified in our report include:
• no recruitment of foster carers who smoke or a requirement that ex-smokers show they have quit for 12 months. However, some councils do employ foster carers who smoke;
• no child under five or with a disability or certain medical conditions placed with adoptive or foster carers who smoke;
• existing carers given support to quit and asked not to smoke in the home or car;
• help for young people in care to stop smoking and ensuring that care workers never condone smoking or be seen to smoke or buy tobacco for a young person;
• no smoking in residential homes and staff encouraged not to smoke, including in grounds or on excursions.
We believe local authorities must ensure that they have tobacco policies to protect young people in care and we’d like to see all councils working to implement them as soon as possible.
Health-promoting tobacco policies are seen as a vital component in addressing the complex needs and circumstances of young people in the care system, by making it a key priority for children to be raised in smoke-free environments.
We’re not criticising councils for their lack of policies. First, we want to help them address the situation. So we’re eager to give advice and support to councils and care agencies to put together policies or improve their existing guidelines.
Our advice includes:
• incorporating tobacco policies into child protection policies to achieve the necessary support from staff and young people;
• involving stakeholders (including young people) in the development of policies which concern them;
• creating non-smoking, clean, safe environments where young people choose not to smoke to complement and dovetail with broader health topics.
Already, two councils and four care agencies have expressed keenness to link with ASH Scotland to review and further develop existing guidelines, or create new tobacco policies for looked-after young people.
Scotland has a vision of becoming tobacco-free by 2034 by putting smoking out of fashion for the next generation.
To achieve this we must support all our young people to avoid taking up smoking and ensure they can live in environments free from damaging second-hand tobacco smoke.
This article first appeared in Friends of The Scotsman