A controversial new policy to ban smokers from fostering children has been passed by a council.
The ban, which was passed unanimously at a cabinet meeting of Redbridge Council last night, means that children in the east London borough will not be placed with foster carers who smoke after January 2010.
Councillors say the move is crucial in protecting children from the harmful effects of passive smoking, but concerns have been raised that the ban could reduce the number of loving foster homes available to vulnerable children.
Speaking after the meeting, the cabinet member for children, Tory councillor Michael Stark, said: "We know this is a difficult issue because some people will feel it is an intrusion on personal freedoms, but we also know that smoking increases the risk of serious illness in childhood.
"The bottom line is that we must put the welfare of young children in our care first."
The Fostering Network has expressed concerns that the policy could prevent good foster carers from coming forward.
A spokesman for the national charity said: "We certainly view this as a good move in terms of creating a smoke-free environment for a child, but we don't agree that a blanket ban on any smokers becoming foster carers is the right thing.
"If a person has the right qualities and skills to be a foster carer, they shouldn't be put off coming forward just because they have the odd cigarette at the end of the garden or on a night out. Fostering is about much more than just smoking."
The council said the new policy is a result of scientific evidence which showed that second-hand smoke is a cause of lung cancer and childhood respiratory disease.
It said young children are particularly susceptible to the effects of second-hand smoke because their lungs and airways are small and their immune systems immature.
The risk of cot death, asthma, middle ear disease, pneumonia and bronchitis is higher if children live in a home where people smoke.
All new applicants will be told at an early stage that they will not be able to foster if they smoke, unless there are "exceptional circumstances". Existing foster carers who smoke will be helped to give up.
Smokers' rights group Forest reacted angrily to the policy. A spokesman said: "This is another attempt to stigmatise smokers and separate them from the rest of society.
"This discriminates against plenty of people who would have made excellent foster carers, and so it is damaging not only for them but also for the children that they would have fostered. The really insidious implication is that smokers in general are not fit to be parents, and that is totally unacceptable."
The plans met with mixed reactions from foster carers before last night's vote.
During a consultation in June, one current carer said: "The policy is unfair as it is telling carers how to live their lives."
Another asked whether the council plans to employ only non-smoking social workers in future.
But the majority of fostered children consulted were in favour of the policy. During a consultation in September, 11 out of 17 children said they would discourage their family and friends from smoking, while only one said they would not and five said they did not have an opinion either way.
Southend-on-Sea Council, which does not allow smokers to foster children under the age of five, is planning to review its policy after Redbridge Council's decision.
Children's councillor Roger Hadley said: "In light of new evidence, it is time to reconsider the impact that living in a smoky environment has on young people.
"Children have a right to live in a clean, healthy environment. In the light of Redbridge's decision, I will be raising this for discussion at our next council meeting."
The policy does not extend to private foster carers in Redbridge.