Maine Initiative Keeps Kids Out of Smoke-Filled Autos

The action by the Bangor City Council to ban smoking in cars in which children under 18 are passengers is being hailed today by anti-smoking advocates as a new frontier in the fight against cigarettes. But libertarian groups have greeted it with howls of protest as another government intrusion into the lives of U.S. citizens.

"It's a troubling indication of how little we regard our freedoms," says Mark Cenci, chairman of Maine's Libertarian Party.

The Bangor ordinance, passed by a 6-3 vote, permits police in the state's second largest city to stop a car if an adult is smoking while a child is a passenger. The smoking driver can be fined $50.

The ordinance is aimed at protecting children from secondhand smoke. In 2006, a report from the U.S. surgeon general condemned secondhand smoke, particularly around children.

"We know that the concentrations of tobacco smoke in cars will frequently be three to five times what they are in offices or in a bar," says John Banzhaf, of Action on Smoking and Health. "Children, particularly young children, are susceptible to smoke," he says.

Bangor's mayor, Richard Greene, who smokes a pack a day, supported the measure, saying, "I think it is common sense."

But not everyone in the city of 33,000 agrees.

"I just think they're taking away more rights," says Tom Harris, a waiter at Bangor's Whig and Courier Pub. "It's just one thing after another." What about the health effects on children? "I was brought up with my father smoking in the car," he says, "and it hasn't bothered me any. That's what the windows are for."

But many residents support the ban.

Chris Sweeney, a cook at the Countryside Restaurant who smokes and has two children, says he'll now stop smoking in the car. "No kid should be forced in the car with smoke," he says.

Phil Frederick who owns Bangor Floral Company, is another supporter. "I thought right off the bat that this was a great idea," he says. It's really wrong to expose kids to secondhand smoke, and in an enclosed vehicle, that's absolutely the worst place to do it."

Bangor is the first city to ban smoking in cars. And while various libertarian and pro-smoking groups have attacked studies that say secondhand smoke is deadly, Maine is considering expanding the ban statewide, and Arkansas, Louisiana and Puerto Rico have adopted similar bans. Prohibiting smoking in cars is under consideration in California, Connecticut and New Jersey.

In California, the land of cars, the proposed law would make it illegal to smoke in a parked or moving car if a child under the age of 6 or weighing less than 60 pounds is inside. Police could stop the vehicle and eventually fine the smoking driver up to $100.

"It's not fair to children," says Assemblyman Sam Blakeslee, a Republican of San Luis Obispo.

"It's ridiculous," says Gail Lightfoot, chairwoman of the San Luis Obispo Country Libertarian party. "The government shouldn't meddle in people's private spaces."

In addition, a number of states, including Texas and Oklahoma, now prohibit smoking around foster children. In some states, judges deciding which divorcing parent should receive child custody have ruled in favor of the nonsmoking parent.

"Is this out of control?" asks Action on Smoking and Health's Banzhaf. "It's just the opposite. We have gone nowhere near enough when thousands of children are at risk."

Condominium boards and apartment owners have faced lawsuits to end smoking on their properties and prevent secondhand smoke from drifting from one unit to another.

"This old idea that a person's home is a castle, with regard to smoking, if ever true, is no longer true."

But Cenci, of Maine's Libertarian Party, says, "It doesn't make sense." He describes the argument over secondhand smoke as "a not wholly provable bugaboo. And besides," he adds, "the government is now trying to regulate legal behavior."

What needs to be done, says Cenci, is to increase fines for speeding or reckless driving when children are in cars. "Things," he says, "that are known to kill children."

But anti-smoking advocate Banzhaf believes there is a last word in the argument: "Secondhand smoke is the most deadly form of child abuse in this country, and we still haven't gone far enough."