Smoking in cars bill advances with opposition building

Published: Wednesday, Feb. 27 2013 3:43 p.m. MST

The dangers of cigarette smoking are well documented, yet people still do it. The dangers to children exposed to second-hand tobacco smoke are well documented, yet some parents still light up in the presence of their kids — and because they do, a Utah legislator thinks there ought to be a law.

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SALT LAKE CITY — A Utah pediatrician believes smoking in a car with a child present is similar to child abuse.

"It is every bit as traumatic as broken bones and bruises, and longer-lasting," Dr. Tom Metcalf told members of the Senate Health and Human Services Committee on Wednesday.

The situation of exposing a child to secondhand smoke, which he said can be toxic to developing lungs, is "non-accidental trauma."

HB13, sponsored by Rep. Patrice Arent, D-Millcreek, is the latest attempt by the Legislature to prohibit smoking in cars when passengers under age 15 are present. Similar legislation has been attempted, albeit unsuccessfully, for the past several years.

The law, if adopted, would make the action a secondary offense and impose a $45 fine that could be waived for first-time offenders in exchange for attendance at a smoking cessation class.

Arent said the potential legislation, which mimics laws prohibiting alcohol consumption while driving and requiring child safety restraints, serves a "very important, public health and safety purpose … to protect vulnerable people who cannot protect themselves."

Gayle Ruzicka, of the Utah Eagle Forum, opposes the bill, saying it infringes on personal property rights.

"Do we, as a state, pass laws that tell parents what they can do with their own personal property?" Ruzicka said, adding that the Utah Legislature already allows guns in cars, which could also potentially be dangerous to children.

"There are a lot of things that go on on personal property that would be dangerous," she said. "Private property is private property, and we cannot protect children from all danger."

Ruzicka said she worries the bill could someday be used to prosecute parents who smoke as child abusers. It is a concern echoed by Sen. Daniel Thatcher, R-West Valley City, who gave the committee's only dissenting vote on the bill.

Thatcher said that while he believes "a parent who smokes in a car with a child is a terrible parent," the eventual progression of the potential law might go too far.

"I'm no friend of tobacco, never have been, and I'm a staunch defender of personal rights," said Sen. Allen Christensen, R-Ogden, calling HB13 a "necessary bill."

"I'm willing to take away that person's liberty to smoke in that enclosed environment," Christensen said. "Our charge as a Legislature is to draw the line … and that line needs to be moved in favor of the children."

Metcalf said the bill, as written, is similar to legislation that paved the way to make car seats mandatory for children and infants in 1984. He said that bill gradually increased education on the matter of child safety and eventually led to fewer deaths on Utah roads.

HB13 narrowly passed the Utah House of Representatives and now faces additional discussion and a vote by the whole Senate body.

Utah PTA President-elect Liz Zentner said she is perplexed at lawmakers who don't vote for the bill, choosing then to "protect those who put their addiction before the health of their children."

Zentner said parents who choose to smoke while kids are present in a vehicle are essentially creating "gas chambers on wheels."

E-mail: wleonard@desnews.com, Twitter: wendyleonards

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