Friday, April 4, 2008

No Smokin' Babes

originally published in the Hartford Advocate February 28, 2008

No Smokin' Babes

A new law will ban smoking in cars with children

By Jennifer Abel

Think of the children! Seriously, think about them for a second: awww. Truly they are precious, and fragile in many ways. When new laws are proposed in the name of "the children," that generally means more restrictions on adults.

State Senate bill 268, "An Act Prohibiting Smoking In Vehicles With Minor Children," is no exception. It's currently before the Children's Committee, where it was introduced by Senator Henry Genga of East Hartford.

When we called Genga about the bill he told us, "Last year it was introduced ... from a request from a boy who was 9 years old."

America is unique among the world's democratic republics, few of whom let 9-year-olds so much as vote, let alone help write the laws of the land. Though the child's vision was diluted in committee, Genga said: "We reduced it to 'no smoking in cars with small children' ... it's enforceable, and it's practical."

The bill defines smoking as the act of holding "a cigarette, cigar, pipe or similar device ... in the immediate proximity of [the] mouth." It need not actually be lit. And Genga's "small children" are those required to ride in child-restraint seats: 6 years or younger and weighing less than 60 pounds. When asked the rationale for this legislation, Genga recited the usual statistics about how secondhand smoke is very bad for you: poisons, toxins, bronchitis, asthma, allergies, cancer and death.

"I don't believe people know how bad secondhand smoke is to small children," he said.

We wondered about that ourselves, we told him. Up through the mid-'90s you could smoke pretty much everywhere: restaurants, waiting rooms, common areas of shopping malls. Through the '60s and '70s you could even smoke in hospitals and doctors' offices.

"We didn't know then how bad it was," Genga said.

Right, we said, but if secondhand smoke is as harmful as all that, why don't most Americans old enough to remember the 20th century have lung disease by now? And why aren't all the Baby Boomers dead?

"Every time a bullet is fired at someone, do they die?" Genga asked. We didn't agree that smoking upwind of a person is analogous to shooting at them, but Genga told us, "[The Surgeon General] said in 2006, 'There is no risk-free exposure to secondhand smoke.' It raises the risk of health problems 20 to 30 percent in non-smokers."

Which brought us back to our original point, we said; if secondhand smoke is that dangerous then most adults over 25 should have lung or respiratory problems by now, because as kids their exposure to —

"I'm not focusing on that," Genga said impatiently. "I'm focusing on the little children. In cars. An enclosed space."

So if enclosed spaces are the issue here, will the bill make an exemption for smoking in open-top convertibles?

No, Genga said firmly. "If you're in a vehicle with a child in a restraint seat, no smoking."

A public hearing on the bill is scheduled for 11 a.m. on Feb. 28, in room 1C of the Legislative Office Building. Those who wish to speak can sign up starting two hours beforehand.