AUGUSTA – Gov. John Baldacci on Thursday signed into law a ban on smoking in any vehicle when children under 16 are present. The new law gives Maine one of the toughest restrictions in the nation against exposing minors to secondhand smoke in vehicles. The law will take effect 90 days after the current legislative session adjourns, which is expected within the next week.
“Tobacco use costs too many lives and too much money,” Baldacci said at the formal signing ceremony in the governor’s private office. “Especially at risk are our youngest citizens, who don’t have the choice of whether or not to be exposed to dangerous secondhand smoke.”
The statewide legislation is modeled after a Bangor city ordinance that took effect last year. The Bangor ordinance protects children up to age 18, but members of the Legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee dropped the threshold for the state law to age 16 to make the legislation less intrusive. Bangor’s more restrictive ban will remain in effect within city limits unless changed by the City Council.
For the first year the new state law is in effect, police can only issue written warnings for violations. After that, each violation could earn the driver a $50 fine.
During the bill’s public hearing, supporters of the legislation cited a national survey of youth activity patterns showing that children spend about an hour a day in a vehicle. They referred to studies showing that toxic gases and airborne particles accumulate to dangerously high levels in enclosed areas such as a car.
Bangor pediatric dentist and children?s health advocate Dr. Jonathan Shenkin, primary architect of the Bangor ordinance and an energetic supporter of the state legislation, said Thursday that Maine?s new law is among the most protective in the nation.
Smoking bans in Arkansas and Louisiana protect only much younger children, he said, while a ban recently enacted in California is enforceable only as a secondary offence, meaning a driver can be cited only when pulled over for another offense, such as speeding.
Violation of Maine?s law is a primary offense, so drivers can be stopped and penalized for allowing anyone to light up in a vehicle if any passenger is under 16.
?Clearly, people react in a much different way if they can be pulled over [for violating the law],? Shenkin said.
Shenkin said he is pleased at the success of the measure but he already is making plans to strengthen the law. Next year, he said, he will help draft legislation to increase the penalties and restore the 18-year-old cutoff age.
?The model in Bangor should be the model for the state,? he said. And with evidence mounting about the dangers of secondhand smoke to children, and the high levels of toxic gases that accumulate in the closed environment of a car, he said he thinks legislators will support a more stringent version of the law.
The Maine Children?s Alliance, American Lung Association, Maine Medical Association and Health Policy Partners of Maine all applauded enactment of the bill. Ed Miller of the Maine Lung Association said the new law puts Maine in a leadership role in protecting children from secondhand smoke.
The smoking ban bill, sponsored by Rep. Brian Duprey, R-Hampden, won broad bipartisan support in both the House and the Senate. Opponents protested that it was an invasion of privacy and an infringement of civil liberties.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.