October 21, 2018
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Maine ban on smoking in cars with kids largely unenforced

Eric Zelz | BDN
Eric Zelz | BDN

BANGOR, Maine — On Jan. 8, 2007, Bangor became the first Maine community to prohibit smoking in vehicles containing children. In 2008, this became state law.

Since then, however, several police agencies in Maine say they’ve cited or only even warned a handful of smokers for indulging their habit with kids in the car.

Bangor has charged only three people over six years, according to Sgt. Paul Edwards.

A survey of Maine State Police, the Penobscot and Kennebec County sheriff’s offices, the Presque Isle Police Department, and Portland Police Department also reported few, if any, citations.

“I’m not aware of any motorists cited by troopers for this and if there were, it is likely only a handful,” Stephen McCausland, Maine Department of Public Safety spokesman, said last month.

“I would guess we do five to 10 a year,” said Kennebec County Sheriff Randall Liberty, whose agency appears to be Maine’s top enforcer of the ban. “We think it’s an important law.”

In Bangor, Edwards said the city also values the ban, even if it doesn’t translate into tickets.

“I think laws like that help people to understand it is a safety thing for those young kids,” Edwards said. “People are learning better every day that smoking and secondhand smoke does kill. The poor kids who have tiny lungs cannot handle that type of smoke.

“We know it kills … but it’s not like an OUI,” Edwards continued, noting a drunken driver can put the public in imminent danger.

“We’re pursuing people we know that are a danger.”

Following Bangor’s lead

Lack of police enforcement doesn’t mean the law has not been effective, said Bangor City Councilor Pat Blanchette, who sponsored the statewide ban as a legislator in 2007.

“I think it’s done a lot of good,” she said. “I’m very pleased it took off across the country. I had reporters from all over the country call me. I had reporters in Canada call me.”

Town leaders in Wolfville, Nova Scotia, located about an hour north of Halifax, made Canadian history in November 2007 when they banned smoking in vehicles carrying children. California passed a law similar to Bangor’s ordinance in January 2008.

Arkansas and Louisiana already had laws on the books, and earlier this year Utah and Oregon both banned smoking with minors in vehicles.

Utah’s law, signed into law March 28, 2013, bans smoking in cars with those age 15 or younger. Oregon’s ban covers those under age 18 and was signed into law on June 11.

Several other states, including Massachusetts, Connecticut and Vermont, are considering or recently have considered legislation to follow suit.

Protecting children

Science has proven that secondhand smoke is harmful, especially for children, Blanchette said. She said adults have a choice about whether to ride in a car with a smoker, but children don’t.

“They can’t get away from it,” Blanchette said. “A 2-year-old, a 3-year-old or a 1-year-old don’t have the option of getting out of that car. They’re trapped in that car.”

Blanchette said compliance with the law is more important than tickets.

“If it has prevented one young child having to go through asthma attacks, it’s worth it,” she said, adding that, “I never understood what they were going through until I had COPD [chronic obstructive pulmonary disease]. I found out what those poor little babies feel like, but they can’t express themselves like I can.

“It probably should have been done a long time ago,” the city councilor said.

Secondhand smoke in vehicles is 27 times more concentrated than inside a smoker’s home and is known to increase the risk of asthma and respiratory diseases in children, according to the American Lung Association.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advises parents to “Make your home and car completely smoke free. Opening a window does not protect you or your child from secondhand smoke.”

Enrollees in childbirth or newborn care classes at Eastern Maine Medical Center in Bangor are educated about the dangers of smoking, especially around children, but they are not given specific details about the law, said Kris Currier, EMMC community relations specialist.

Though Portland has not issued any tickets for the offense, the city has made reducing exposure to secondhand smoke a priority, especially for children, according to spokeswoman Nicole Clegg.

“[This] is why we have enacted a number of city ordinances to create smoke free parks, playgrounds, dining, etc.,” said Clegg.

A campaign called the Butt Stops Here, designed to clean up and prevent the discarding of cigarette butts in the city, also started recently, she added.

‘Not an enforceable law’

The Queen City’s ordinance, which took effect Jan. 19, 2007, allows police to pull over a vehicle when someone is seen smoking with a child under 18 in the vehicle.

The law applies to any smoking materials — cigarettes, cigars, pipes, etc. — in any motor vehicle on public roads within Bangor city limits. Violators can be fined $50.

The state law is slightly less restrictive, with the child age limit capped at 16.

Edwards said the 2007 vehicle smoking ban is similar to the statewide ban on smoking in restaurants and most bars that took effect in September 1999.

He noted few if any individuals have been charged for violations. Most people know the law and are compliant, he said.

Records show several people were given warnings in the first year the Bangor ordinance was in place. A 26-year-old Orono man was one of the first charged when he was stopped on Jan. 22, 2008, in Bangor. Both he and his passenger were smoking with a 2-year-old and a 5-year-old in the back.

The Orono man was given a civil infraction summons for smoking in a vehicle with children under the age of 18, and in February 2008 was fined $50.

Other states take a similar approach to enforcing smoking bans, according to a national anti-smoking organization.

“The purpose of these laws is not to punish people but to educate them about the dangers of secondhand smoke,” said Liz Williams, project manager for Americans for Nonsmokers’ Rights. “The idea is to educate people so they become self-enforcing.”

Blanchette said she knew when she proposed the vehicle smoking ban that it was “not an enforceable law.”

“It doesn’t have the enforcement teeth I would have liked to see,” she said. “Some people just had to be reminded, and it works.”

The fact that other states and communities nevertheless followed in Bangor’s footsteps was not a surprise for the city councilor.

“Dirigo is our state motto and that is what we do — lead,” Blanchette said.

Correction: An earlier version of this story said the state violation was a secondary offense, which is incorrect. It is not a moving violation.

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