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Stub Out This Intrusive Bill

June 26, 2004

Nobody, politically speaking, likes smokers these days, which makes them an easy target for prohibitive new rules, some more justified than others. In the "others" category is a bill that would make it illegal to smoke in a car with a young child.

Such a reach into private family life should worry every Californian, not just smoking parents.

Not only has Assemblyman Marco Firebaugh managed to revive his legislation, which died last month and is wholly unworthy of resurrection, but the vote that originally killed it was far too close. Now that some changes have been made, this bill has a real chance of becoming law.

Let's start by giving the intrusive legislation its due. That won't take long. Firebaugh (D-Los Angeles) intends to protect children from secondhand smoke, a carcinogen that is particularly noxious to the youngest lungs. Certainly, parents should refrain from smoking around their children in a confined space. They also should feed their children kale instead of cupcakes and insist that they play ball games instead of video games. But parents sometimes do imperfect and unwise things, even those that affect a child's long-term health.

It isn't always easy to draw the line between protecting lives and protecting against government intrusion. We obviously wouldn't want the state to come into our homes and tell us whether we can smoke.

This bill is only slightly less intrusive. We accept more regulation of our behavior in cars because when driving, an ordinary citizen can pose deadly risk to others through innocent mistakes or negligence.

Firebaugh's AB 1569, though, has nothing to do with road safety. It is neither ideologically sound nor pragmatically sensible.

After all, why pick specifically on smoking and cars? Why not make it illegal to smoke in the kitchenette (often smaller than a Hummer) while feeding the baby? Or, if the issue is promoting child health in cars, let's ticket parents who give their children Ho-Hos in the car seat. Childhood obesity is a serious health problem.

On a practical level, traffic cops -- already stretched to stay on top of the truly dangerous maneuvers on the road -- would put such a law low on their enforcement list. At the same time, addicted smokers would crank up the car windows to keep the evidence invisible, concentrating the smoke within.

There already are plenty of heartbreaking things happening to children -- violent abuse, life-threatening neglect -- that we have too few resources to prevent or discover.

Let's not waste time going after people who light up in their own cars. We encourage cigar-loving Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to quit the habit for his health -- and then, should this bill get through the Legislature, to stub it out with a veto.

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