Uncertainty at the Northern Ireland Assembly could delay the introduction of a ban on smoking in cars with child passengers.
The landmark legislation, which is designed to protect children from the effects of tobacco smoke, comes into force in England and Wales on Thursday.
It will see the driver and any smoker fined £50 if they have someone under 18 in the car with them.
Neil Johnston, public affairs officer for the Chest Heart and Stroke charity, said constant flux at Stormont risks derailing attempts to bring the same law to Northern Ireland.
“The Miscellanous Bill for NI is currently going through the Assembly which will make it an offence here, but unless it is formally introduced by the end of October nothing will happen. It cannot be carried over into the next Assembly,” he said.
“That means we would have to start all over again in the next Assembly, meaning it could be 2017 before it becomes an offence in Northern Ireland.
“The Scots are putting it into law at the moment as is the Republic of Ireland. That means Northern Ireland could be the only place in these islands without a ban.
“We feel it is very important to send out a message that society disapproves of the minority of people who smoke in cars where children are present.”
The Stormont Department of Health responded that protecting people, particularly children, from second-hand smoke is a key objective of its 10-year tobacco control strategy.
“The department will monitor the implementation and impact of legislation banning smoking in cars carrying children in other jurisdictions, with a view to considering how best to introduce similar measures in Northern Ireland,” a spokeswoman said.
Police and local authorities in England and Wales have been told they are able to enforce the law immediately, but are thought to favour a period of educating drivers rather than enforcement action.
A National Police Chiefs’ Council spokeswoman said: “As the existing smoke-free law extends to vehicles, police forces will be following guidance from the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health by taking an educational, advisory and non-confrontational approach when enforcing the new legislation.”
Dr Anil Namdeo, of Newcastle University, said that his research found that even driving with the windows open while smoking exposed those in the back to dangerous levels of chemicals – more than 100 times higher than recommended safety guidelines.
“People think that by opening the window they are clearing the air, but what actually happens is the air is sucked in from outside and pushes the smoke backwards, straight towards the passengers in the back seat,” he said.