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Antismoking Legislation Is Rekindled

Bill that would ban drivers from lighting up in cars carrying young children is approved by a Senate panel. The issue was considered dead two weeks ago.

June 17, 2004|Gabrielle Banks | Times Staff Writer

SACRAMENTO — A state Senate committee approved legislation Wednesday to prohibit drivers from smoking in cars if young children are passengers, reviving a contentious debate between privacy advocates and antismoking groups.

The legislation was thought to be dead only two weeks ago, when a similar bill failed to get support from moderate Democrats in the Assembly. But fellow Democrats in the Senate, upset the measure was killed, are trying again to push it through the Legislature and onto Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's desk.

"It's time to take a stand and protect children beyond what their parents are willing to do," said Sen. Deborah Ortiz (D-Sacramento), who co-authored the new bill, AB 1569, along with its original sponsor, Assemblyman Marco Firebaugh (D-South Gate).

The new legislation adds a public education campaign about the dangers of smoking near children and would take effect in 2006, a year later than originally proposed. Motorists lighting up with a passenger who is younger than 6 or who weighs less than 60 pounds would receive a warning and thereafter be fined $25 if a law enforcement officer caught them in the act.

Firebaugh said the bill aimed to protect children small enough to be required to ride in car seats and too young to speak effectively for themselves. He noted that Californians do not complain that officers enforcing the state's seat belt mandate are invading people's privacy.

"We wanted to make sure that the most vulnerable were protected," he said.

After a brief presentation by Firebaugh on Wednesday, the measure passed the Senate Health and Human Services Committee with a 9-2 vote. The legislation is also expected to pass the full Senate and then head back to the Assembly, where Firebaugh must pick up at least four votes from lawmakers. His original measure died on a 37-30 vote two weeks ago; it needed at least 41.

It's unclear where Schwarzenegger stands on the issue; he does not normally take positions on pending legislation. But the governor is an avid cigar smoker who has a special tent in his office courtyard because smoking inside the Capitol is illegal.

Assemblyman Keith Richman (R-Northridge), a physician who voted against the original measure, said he had "absolutely no question" about the hazardous effects of secondhand smoke. However, Richman and others still question whether the law would be unnecessarily intrusive.

"What would we do next?" Richman asked. "Outlaw it in people's garages? In their houses?"

Another opponent, Assemblywoman Lynn Daucher (R-Brea) said her objections have not changed. She said she uses this proposal to teach school kids who visit her office about government intervention. "Kids automatically say they would vote for it," Daucher said, but then she asks them what other laws they might support. "Should government decide whether they should eat liver for dinner?"

According to the American Lung Assn., 20 of the 30 lawmakers who opposed Firebaugh's original bill received campaign contributions from the tobacco industry over the last two years.

For decades, health-conscious California has broadened the boundaries of antismoking laws, advocating the rights of nonsmokers in public places. California has led the nation with laws banning smoking in bars, workplaces, outside government buildings and on playgrounds, though many smokers and privacy advocates were incensed when the laws were introduced.

The Environmental Protection Agency classifies secondhand smoke as a known carcinogen and estimates that each year 150,000 to 300,000 children younger than 18 months who are exposed to the smoke contract pneumonia or bronchitis.

Organizations with differing views on this bill -- the American Lung Assn. and Philip Morris USA -- agree that cigarette smoke can cause lung cancer and heart disease in adults, and asthma, respiratory infections and Sudden Infant Death Syndrome in children.

But Philip Morris USA has lobbied actively against the bill, spokeswoman Jamie Drogan said. "The company believes adults should avoid smoking around children when in private vehicles, but we do not believe this is something that should be legislated."

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