Cars With Kids: NYC's Next Smoking Ban?

A Queens councilman proposes an increasingly common policy.


Aug. 16, 2007 — -- Don't light up while driving with minors inside Big Apple city limits.

That's the proposal a New York City councilman will unveil today, a relatively straightforward idea that incites sharp division among supporters eager to snuff out smoking and opponents who lament an unnecessary privacy infringement.

City Councilman James Gennaro, a Queens Democrat, told ABC News that he modeled the proposal after a similar ban passed in Rockland County, N.Y., just two months ago.

Under the New York City proposal, police could stop any drivers caught smoking with a passenger who appears younger than 18 years old. The offense, if approved by the city council and ultimately Mayor Michael Bloomberg, would earn the driver a $100 fine.

"Anyone who smokes is pretty much making everyone else smoke too," Gennaro said. "If someone has a cheeseburger, I'm not having that cholesterol, but I'm having the smoking."

Gennaro cited broad statistics that show the danger of secondhand smoke and specific data that he said show how cigarette smoke inside cars exposes passengers -- particularly children -- to concentrated levels of cigarette toxins.

But Gary Nolan, the American regional director of the Smokers' Club, a right-to-smoke advocacy group, disputed the statistical impact caused by secondhand smoke.

"My premise here is that secondhand smoking science is junk science," Nolan flatly told ABC News, claiming that information has been "cherrypicked" so that the federal government can make sweeping conclusions about the dangers of secondhand smoke.

At least 40 carcinogens can be found in more than 4,000 cigarette substances and approximately 3,000 nonsmokers die each year from lung cancer due to secondhand smoke, according to government findings cited in an Environmental Protection Agency report.

Young children, particularly under 18 months of age, face an even more serious risk, according to the EPA, with hundreds of thousands of cases of asthma negatively affected by secondhand smoke each year.

Beyond the "junk science" driving Gennaro's proposal, Nolan said, are privacy infringement issues -- it's a person's personal vehicle and the government shouldn't be telling someone how to raise their child -- and misappropriated use of law enforcement resources.

"As if law enforcement doesn't already have enough power to pull someone over," Nolan said. "And don't you think that looking for rapists and murderers ought to be a better allocation of resources than looking for smokers."

But proposals like Gennaro's have picked up steam across the country, and the councilman believes that New York City could be next.

Kathleen Dachille, director of the Legal Resource Center for Tobacco Regulation, Litigation and Advocacy at the University of Maryland, said that at least two states -- Arkansas and Louisiana -- have already passed laws that ban smoking in cars with passengers 6 years old or younger and 60 pounds or lighter -- the standard weight set by most states requires children to be placed in car seats.

Many other states are considering similar policies, Dachille said, including Arizona, California, Georgia, Illinois, Massachusetts, Michigan, New York, Pennsylvania and Virginia.

Dachille, who has helped guide the creation of these policies, said she is well aware of the arguments against them -- from privacy infringement to difficulty of enforcement. She's heard from many people staunchly opposed to such bans.

"I received what is slightly short of death threats, and my comments were reasonable," she said, describing her past experience on the hot-button issue. "I couldn't even answer my phone for a couple of days."

But that doesn't mean there's no compromise. For example, Dachille said that Gennaro's policy may become a difficult legislative sell if it includes minors all the way up to 17 years old.

Gennaro said he's willing to bend on the specifics to push through what he called the big picture.

"The beauty of having this already done in local jurisdictions, in entire states, seems to me that those battles have been fought and won," Gennaro said. "New York City is a prominent jurisdiction and I hope this case will be a bellwether."