SALT LAKE CITY — Smoking in cars with passengers under age 16 moved closer to becoming illegal in Utah on Friday after a passionate Senate debate over whether the law infringes on personal rights.
Sen. Aaron Osmond, R-South Jordan, said he doesn't take lightly telling people what they can and can't do. But in this case, the law protects vulnerable people who can’t protect themselves. Children riding in a car with an adult who smokes is like smoking themselves, he said.
"I believe this bill is about putting the rights of children ahead of the property rights of any adult, not just a parent," he said.
The Senate narrowly passed HB13 by a vote of 16-13. The House earlier approved the measure, sponsored by Rep. Patrice Arent, D-Millcreek, 41-30. It now goes to the governor for consideration.
"I expect him to sign it," Arent said.
Similar bills, including one she carried last year, have failed in the past to win approval from both houses of the Legislature.
"The worst place for children to be exposed to secondhand smoke is a small, enclosed place such as a car, where the concentration of smoke is about 27 times greater than in other settings," Arent said. "Children are particularly susceptible to damage because their lungs are still developing.”
The bill makes it a $45 fine to smoke in a vehicle with children. It would be a secondary offense, meaning police couldn't stop motorists for that reason but could issue a citation after pulling them over for another violation. Police would issue only warnings for the first year, beginning in July.
Sen. Deidre Henderson, R-Spanish Fork, opposed the measure, saying it won't solve anything. Children who live in homes where cigarettes are used will still be exposed to secondhand smoke, she said.
"The fact of the matter is we all do things that are harmful to our children," Henderson said. "If we start criminalizing every bad choice a parent makes, we're all going to be criminals."
During the Senate debate, Sen. Mark Madsen asked his colleagues not use the phrase "our children" when talking about protection of children.
"My children are my children. They don't belong to the rest of you," the Lehi Republican said in voting against the bill.
Senators who oppose the bill say it's a slippery slope that infringes on personal liberties and puts Utah on a path to becoming a "nanny state." Some argue it sets a precedent that could lead to parents being accused of child abuse and having their children taken away.
Sen. Margaret Dayton, R-Orem, said people don't need "clean air Nazis" intruding in their lives.
"Governments are not elected to interfere with what we are doing in our families," she said.
Said Sen. Lyle Hillyard, R-Logan, "I don't believe the police are going to go out and arrest people and take your children from you." The law is worthwhile, he said, if it leads people to quit smoking or keeps a child from starting.
According to the bill, the fine can be waived for people who take a smoking cessation class. It also says violations can't be used as evidence of child abuse or neglect.
Sen. Evan Vickers, R-Cedar City, said he values freedoms but also the protection of children's health.
"This is one that I think I can fight for," he said.