BACKGROUND: Mass media representations of health issues influence public perceptions of those issues. Despite legislation prohibiting smoking in public spaces, second-hand smoke (SHS) remains a health risk in the United Kingdom (UK). Further legislation might further limit children's exposure to SHS by prohibiting smoking in private vehicles carrying children. This research was designed to determine how UK national newspapers represented the debate around proposed legislation to prohibit smoking in private vehicles carrying children.
METHODS: Quantitative analysis of the manifest content of 422 articles about children and SHS published in UK and Scottish newspapers between 1st January 2003 and 16th February 2014. Researchers developed a coding frame incorporating emergent themes from the data. Each article was double-coded.
RESULTS: The frequency of relevant articles rose and fell in line with policy debate events. Children were frequently characterised as victims of SHS, and SHS was associated with various health risks. Articles discussing legislation targeting SHS in private vehicles carrying children presented supportive arguments significantly more frequently than unsupportive arguments.
CONCLUSIONS: The relatively positive representation of legislation prohibiting smoking in vehicles carrying children is favourable to policy advocates, and potentially indicative of likely public acceptance of legislation. Our findings support two lessons that public health advocates may consider: the utility of presenting children as a vulnerable target population, and the possibility of late surges in critical arguments preceding policy events.