THE BLOG

It's Time to Protect Little Lungs

08/03/2015 11:26am ET | Updated August 3, 2016
This post was published on the now-closed HuffPost Contributor platform. Contributors control their own work and posted freely to our site. If you need to flag this entry as abusive, send us an email.

An Act To Protect Little Lungs is a bill that I filed in the Massachusetts House of Representatives. The idea behind this bill would be to make it illegal for anyone to smoke while a child is in the car in a car seat. Penalty would be a $100 fine, which would be collected by either the local or state police agency who issued the ticket.

Why do I want to do this? Am I infringing on personal rights? Shouldn't the discretion be left up to the parents of the child? I have gotten these questions and many more.

Why Do This?

The group Americans for Nonsmokers' Rights states:

When someone smokes in the small enclosed space of a car, people are exposed to toxic air that is many times higher than what the EPA considers hazardous air quality, even when a window is down. Additionally, the gaseous and particulate components of tobacco smoke absorb into the upholstery and other surfaces inside a car, and then off-gas back into the air over the course of many days, exposing passengers to toxins long after anyone actually smoked in the car.

The research is very clear about the harms done by second hand smoke. TobaccoFreeKids.org has a fact sheet that makes several of the following points:

A 2006 study by researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health found "alarming" levels of secondhand smoke were generated in just five minutes in vehicles under various driving, ventilation, and smoking conditions.

That study also made the following findings:

  • The average levels of respirable particulate matter (the pollution inhaled from secondhand smoke) in the vehicles was actually higher than that found in similar studies of smoking in bars in several towns in eastern Massachusetts. In addition, the levels of particulate matter found in the vehicles exceeded those levels described by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency as "unhealthy for sensitive groups" such as children and the elderly.
  • The researchers found that the pollution levels detected "highlight the potentially serious threat to children's health presented by secondhand smoke in private cars under normal driving conditions."
  • In addition to "alarming" increases of respirable particulate matter, the researchers also found a "significant increase" in levels of carbon monoxide. The researchers point out that carbon monoxide "is a poisonous gas, which may cause coma and death in large amounts, but among infants is known to induce lethargy and loss of alertness even in small quantities."

Their brief continues stating that:

Studies Addressing Secondhand Smoke in Cars

  • A 2012 study published in Pediatrics reported that despite a significant decrease in SHS exposure in cars among nonsmoking US middle and high school students between the years of 2000 and 2009, that in 2009, more than one-fifth of these students were still exposed to SHS in a car in the previous 7 days.
  • A 2008 study examining secondhand smoke exposure in cars found that it reached unhealthy levels even under varying ventilation conditions. Smoking just one cigarette in a vehicle far exceeded fine particle exposure limits set by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and raised secondhand smoke levels several times higher than levels found in smoky bars and restaurants.
  • In 2006, researchers presented a study in which they found secondhand smoke in cars under all conditions tested reached unhealthy levels, even with ventilation. Extremely high levels of particulate matter were recorded in cars with tobacco smoke, putting all riders, particularly children, at an increased health risk.
  • A study published by The New Zealand Medical Journal found that smoking in a car with the window open produced air quality five times worse than even on the poorest air quality days in Auckland. Furthermore, it found that air quality was up to 100 times worse with all car windows closed. The study suggests adopting laws to make cars smoke-free in order to protect children and non-smokers from air pollution resulting from smoking in cars.
  • A study published in 2008 examined residual smoke pollution in used cars. The authors found significantly higher levels of nicotine in the air, dust, and surfaces of used cars that had been owned by smokers than in cars previously owned by nonsmokers who prohibited smoking in their vehicle.
  • Researchers conducting a study in rural southwestern Georgia interviewed low income families on the establishment and enforcement of smoking rules in family cars. The researchers found a widespread inaccurate belief that secondhand smoke was not hazardous as long as the car windows were down.

In drafting this legislation that reason that I used a "car seat" was because it is easier for police to identify than age. Having said that, this would be the least restrictive of such laws in the nation as other states have age limits of 8, 13, 15, 16 and 18 years old.

What About Parental Rights?

Parents don't have the right to harm their children, intentionally or unintentionally. Parents have the right to smoke all they want, just not in a clear and convincing manner that will harm children. There is precedent for this with other similar smoking laws in other states and countries. Additionally, parents are required to have children under a certain age or weight in a car seat. Drivers in many states are not allowed to text while driving. There is more than enough ample legal precedent to support this legislation.

Who Would Support Such A Law?

Second-hand smoke in cars is even worse than second-hand smoke perhaps anywhere else. That is why seven states such as:

  • Arkansas
  • Maine
  • Louisiana
  • California
  • Utah
  • Oregon
  • Vermont
  • and Puerto Rico

as well as countries such as:

  • Australia
  • Bahrain
  • Canada
  • Cyprus
  • Jersey
  • Mauritius
  • South Africa
  • France

already have the same or similar bans. England, Scotland and Wales, Finland, Ireland, Israel, Netherlands and Taiwan have planned legislation to ban smoking in cars with children. Public opinion support this protection as well. The Campaign For Tobacco Free Kids notes that:

A survey released in July 2013 found that 82 percent of U.S. adults favor prohibiting smoking in vehicles when children under age 13 are present. The survey found broad-based support for the policy, including support from a majority of current smokers (60 percent), former smokers (84 percent) and never smokers (87 percent).

When I was out knocking on doors campaigning for State Rep in 2012, I came across Ronna Schaffer, a Massachusetts resident. She asked me to file this bill and in exchange she would vote for me. I had no problem with filing such legislation. Ronna has made protecting children from smoke her life's work. She was a teacher who could smell the awful smoke on her kindergarten students as they arrived at school. She reasoned that it had to be doing damage to their little developing lungs. She was right. Schaffer said to the Sun Chronicle that she wondered what the secondhand smoke was doing to their little lungs if it was smelling up their clothing so much. Later, she said, research determined that the smoke can result in more ear infections, asthma and other health and developmental problems.

Times are changing from when doctors used to prescribe smoking to cure ailments. This issue is a no brainer. It is an unfortunate reality that not all parents look out for (all of) the best interests of their children. I believe that through the democratic process of elected representatives our government can and should act to protect those who cannot protect themselves. The democratic process will determine if a majority agrees with this legislation. I believe that it is only a matter of time before my bill passes and An Act To Protect Little Lungs will become law in Massachusetts.

Paul Heroux is a State Representative from Massachusetts. He can be reached at paulheroux.mpa@gmail.com.