SALT LAKE CITY — Tyler Adams knows what it is like to nearly suffocate from not being able to breathe.
He and two of his siblings suffer from severe asthma that was exacerbated every time their grandparents, who were heavy smokers, would light up around them.
"That's not a fun thing to go through," the Hunter High School student told the Health and Human Services Interim Committee on Wednesday.
He encouraged lawmakers to support legislation that would prohibit adults from smoking in a vehicle when a child under age 15 is present.
"We are essentially forcing a child to smoke when it is actually illegal for a child to smoke," said Rep. Patrice Arent, D-Salt Lake City, who is sponsoring the draft bill for a second time. HB89 failed to reach a final vote during the 2011 Legislature.
Lawmakers have attempted to pass similar legislation three times in the past, only to be turned away by those who favor parental rights.
Rep. Brad Daw, R-Orem, said he opposes the proposed bill because it "interferes with people's lives" and individual choice.
"Smoking is still a legal activity," Daw said. "It's a filthy habit, and I don't want to be around anyone who smokes, and I certainly don't want them near my children, but it's their right."
Car seats faced the same type of opposition when state leaders first attempted to make using them a law, said Dr. Tom Metcalf, a retired pediatrician and former Utah lawmaker.
"The health of children trumped ideology," Metcalf said, adding that when the law finally passed in 1982, it established only minimal penalties for misuse.
"What the law really did was educate people," he said.
Only a small portion of kids are affected by secondhand smoke in vehicles, Metcalf said, "but they are affected."
Sen. Pat Jones, D-Salt Lake City, supported the proposed legislation and said she hopes that with the new secondhand smoke rule, parents will think twice about smoking at all.
Children are especially vulnerable to secondhand smoke, said Dr. Kevin Nelson, a University Hospital pediatrician who founded Pediatricians Against Secondhand Smoke after treating many children with asthma whose parents smoke.
There are more than 250 toxic chemicals in cigarette smoke that lingers in the air — and more than 50 of those are proven to cause cancer, Nelson said.
"Children are still developing," he said. "Secondhand smoke slows lung growth, and without fully developed lungs, they can't filter out the harmful materials as well as adults can."
In addition to damaging the lungs and exacerbating asthma symptoms, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that secondhand smoke can damage a child's heart, ears and sinus cavities, leading to a variety of health problems later in life.
Utah has one of the lowest smoking rates in the country, but up to 18,000 children are still exposed to secondhand smoke on an annual basis, according to Utah Department of Health data.
On top of that, 22 percent of middle-schoolers with asthma report that they're exposed to secondhand smoke, which can be deadly for them, Nelson said.
The draft legislation, which would modify the Motor Vehicle Code to make smoking in a vehicle with a child present a secondary offense, punishable by a maximum fine of $45, passed favorably out of the committee, with the only dissenting vote coming from Daw.
Arent, who was exposed to secondhand smoke as a child, said laws are intended to protect people.9 comments on this story
"It is our duty to give voice to children who do not have a choice in the matter," she said.
The committee also heard about the dangers of third-hand smoke, or residue left after a cigarette is extinguished that accumulates in cars, homes and other indoor space, and can sometimes be hazardous to another's health.
Rep. Lee Perry, R-Perry, intends to research and possibly draft other legislation that would prohibit smoking in work place vehicles that are also used by nonsmokers, to prevent possible dangers from third-hand smoke.