Is it Illegal to Smoke in a Car Carrying Children?


In the wake of the Welsh assembly passing a ban to stop people from smoking in cars when children are present, I asked if such a ban was currently in place in the United States. Like all good legal questions, the answer was, “It depends.”

Current State of the Law

In the U.S., there are currently 7 states (Arkansas, California, Louisiana, Maine, Oregon, Utah, and Vermont) and several local governments, along with the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, which prohibit smoking in a car when children are present. The laws vary slightly, in that the ages which constitute a child differ (varying anywhere from 8 and under (Vermont), to 18 and under (Oregon)), and the manner in which the law is enforced also differs (in some states the police officer can pull you over and ticket you solely for smoking while carrying children, while in other states it is considered a secondary offense, meaning a motorist can only be ticketed if they have already been stopped for some other offense). There are also laws that prohibit smoking with foster children in the home and the car. According to some though, a law specifically prohibiting smoking in cars with children is not necessary because other laws can handle these situations.

In September 2014 in Lincoln, Nebraska, the Lincoln-Lancaster County Board of Health held a meeting addressing this issue in which several of the board members suggested that a better method for handling this matter is to arrest parents for child abuse. According to these board members, there is no need for a new law because the data provides evidence that this act makes kids sick, so there is a case to be made that this is child abuse, and having a few highly publicized arrests would educate parents. But is this a serious risk to children?

Child in carseat

The Risks Associated with Smoking in Cars

In 1992, the EPA finished its study into the risks associated with environmental tobacco smoke (ETS), or secondhand smoke, and found that it is a human lung carcinogen which is responsible for about 3,000 nonsmoker lung cancer deaths a year in the United States. Additionally, this study found that children who are exposed to high doses of secondhand smoke are at an increased risk of experiencing damaging health effects, including asthma, reduced lung function, bronchitis, pneumonia, and many others. Other studies have come to the same conclusion, and some have even found a correlation between exposure to secondhand smoke and mental illness in children.

The reason children are particularly susceptible to the dangers of secondhand smoke is because children are still developing physically and biologically. Indeed, children’s smaller lungs, faster breathing, and less-developed immune systems render them at a higher risk for many of the harmful effects associated with secondhand smoke. Because of this, not only have states taken action to protect both children and adults with various restrictions on smoking in certain spaces, but courts have even taken judicial notice of the dangers of exposing children to secondhand smoke.

When turning to smoking in cars, studies confirm that the concentration of secondhand smoke when smoking in a vehicle dramatically increases the risks associated with exposure to ETS. A car is a small, confined space in which the child has no choice but to be close to the smoker and the smoke. According to a recent study, after smoking one cigarette in a car the air quality is 11 times worse than in a bar where smoking is allowed. Unfortunately, even when a window is cracked open, or completely down, and the cigarette is held out the window, the smoke will pool in the back seat where children often sit. Indeed, it is no wonder that the EPA “encourages parents and caregivers to keep their cars free of secondhand smoke when children are passengers.” But is a ban the best way to handle this issue?

Smoking in Car

Is a Ban on Smoking In Cars with Children Going Too Far?

When I first began researching and writing about this topic, I considered it a “no-brainer.” I thought, “Of course smoking in cars should be banned!” But, then I spoke to my friends and family on the issue, and began to hear differing views and mixed feelings about such a law.

Arguments for the Ban

Most states now protect adults from exposure to secondhand smoke by banning smoking in bars and other indoor facilities. Many places also limit the places that individuals are allowed to smoke outside buildings by designating certain exits and specific distances from the building that people may smoke. Although many individuals were initially upset about these restrictions, they are now widely accepted, due in part to the health risks associated with secondhand smoke and the general intrusion that many consider it to be. Yet, children – who are far more sensitive to tobacco smoke – cannot speak up when they are strapped into these “rolling smokehouses” and being harmed by the dangerous levels of secondhand smoke in them.

Some argue that the government is playing “nanny,” and it should not intrude on our “freedoms” by reaching into the car by telling individuals what they cannot do. Yet, these arguments seem selfish and uncaring. The government has placed restrictions that impact private drivers for the protection of children. For example, every state in the U.S. has passed many laws which are designed to protect children from possible injury in automobile accidents, such as requiring drivers/parents place children in proper child safety seats, often in the rear seat. Additionally, in order to protect other drivers and individuals, states restrict drivers from operating motor vehicles with open bottles of liquor, or using cell phones while driving. But states also pass laws for the protection of the driver, such as requiring individuals to wear their seat belts when driving. And if the government can pass all these restrictions for the protection of the driver, other drivers, passengers, and citizens in general, there is really no reason the government should not be allowed to protect innocent children form the health risks associated with smoking in cars.

There are those who argue this is a burden, but a restriction limiting when and where an individual can smoke is much less than a restriction requiring children to be buckled in a very specific manner every time you take a child for a car ride, no matter how short. Considering that most car rides for children are very short, e.g., to school, to practice for sports, to a friend’s home, etc., whatever inconvenience this restriction may cause is minimal. On the few long car trips drivers make with children, it is actually a smart idea to take frequent breaks for both the children and the drivers/parents, and on those stops, the driver can smoke in an open environment.

Smoking Ban

Arguments Against the Ban

There are already an overwhelming amount of laws that parents are forced to deal with now, and although this seems like a small restriction with minimal intrusion into private citizens’ vehicles, it is none-the-less another intrusion. Where do we draw the line? Additionally, this is a law with the potential to have an unfair impact on lower income parents or minorities, especially if this were to be a secondary offense, considering that some law enforcement agencies pull over certain categories of individuals more than others. This means more opportunities for those individuals to face compounding fines and tickets. Thus, this law could end up being nothing more than another fine that many parents cannot afford.

Concluding Thoughts

After discussing this issue at length with many friends and family members, it seemed apparent that everyone agreed education is extremely important to addressing this concern, whether a law is passed that bans smoking in cars with children or not. So, perhaps instead of imposing a fine on those who smoke when driving with children, these individuals should be required to take a short course on the dangers and risks children are exposed to when adults smoke in the car. It could be something as simple as a cheap on-line course, which could be done in the comfort of one’s home, or in a library if someone does not have internet access. Or, it could be an educational pamphlet sent to the smoker’s home, which is used to assist in completing a short test that is mailed back to the Court. Similar programs are in place for other offenses, so why couldn’t this be done for smokers?

I would be greatly interested in hearing your views on this issue. Is a law banning smoking in cars carrying children going too far? Please give me your thoughts below.

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