Smoking ban revs privacy worries

SACRAMENTO -- Never before has California banned smoking on private property used exclusively by members of the owner's family.

Beginning this month, a motorist can be fined $100 for lighting up a cigarette in his or her car, even if parked in the driveway, if one passenger is a child.

Police cannot pull over a motorist only for smoking when children are present, but can issue citations if the driver is stopped for another reason.

The law marks a new frontier in more than two decades of state smoking restrictions that have focused on workplaces, public buildings, restaurants, flights, tot lots and gathering spots.

It also comes as cigar-smoking Republican Gov. Schwarzenegger is teaming with some Democrats to push a proposed ballot measure that would increase cigarette taxes by $1.75 per pack to expand health insurance.

Lawmakers returning to the Capitol this week will consider pushing the state's smoking prohibitions even further.

Sen. Jenny Oropeza, the Long Beach Democrat who proposed California's vehicle-smoking law to lower children's exposure to secondhand smoke, has proposed legislation to ban smoking at state-owned beaches or parks.

Statewide, smoking rates have been falling for more than two decades, to 13 percent of adults, compared with 25 percent in 1984, state health surveys show.

Audrey Silk, leader of New York-based Citizens Lobbying Against Smoker Harassment, said opponents nationwide seem determined to price cigarettes out of the market and, for those who won't quit, to expand smoking bans wherever possible.

"It's exploiting children to push their agenda," Silk said of California's new ban. "It's emotion-driven, not science-driven."

Numerous cities have passed tighter smoking restrictions than those imposed statewide: Belmont, south of San Francisco, has targeted apartments and condos that share a common floor or ceiling. Calabasas in Southern California has taken aim at smoking in public. Roseville, near Sacramento, has targeted parks.

Silk predicted that the argument used to pass Oropeza's legislation -- health risks to youngsters confined in a smoky place -- will be recycled to fight parents who light up in their homes.

"This is part of their incrementalism plan," she said.

Other critics say California's law reflects a disturbing trend to legislate personal behavior in ways ranging from banning soda pop in schools to requiring skateboarders to wear helmets.

"People engage in activities that I ada- mantly disagree with, all the time, in the comfort and privacy of their homes," said Assemblyman Anthony Adams, R-Hesperia. "I have no business, as a legislator, interjecting myself into their private lives."

Sen. George Runner, R-Lancaster, said the vehicle law blurs parental rights in a dangerous way that could spark legislation to limit children's hamburger or french fry consumption, for example, because of health risks.

"I've got no problem listening to government's advice on raising my kids -- I welcome it," said Sen. Tom McClintock, R-Thousand Oaks. "But I'll be damned if I'm going to take its orders."

Anti-smoking advocates counter that the state has an obligation to protect children and always has done so, from barring minors from buying alcohol to forbidding sex offenders from teaching in schools.

Intrusion or protection?

Supporters hail the vehicle ban as protecting children too young to help themselves, but opponents blast it as intruding on property and parental rights, and suspect that homes soon will be targeted.

"Nobody recommends smoking in the presence of a minor," said Assemblyman Chuck DeVore, R-Irvine. "But where is the line between individual responsibility and government force?"

Regulating motorists' behavior is nothing new, the law's backers note. Drivers are required to use seat belts and strap infants into safety seats. And starting July 1, the state will start enforcing restrictions on using cell phones in vehicles.

Attorney John Banzhaf, director of Action on Smoking and Health, one of the nation's leading groups advocating anti-smoking laws, said California should and probably will prohibit parents in coming years from smoking in homes when kids are present.

California's law is the strictest of its kind nationwide because it applies to driving with anyone younger than 18. Laws in Arkansas and Louisiana seek to protect children younger than 6 and 13, respectively.

"We thought this was of particular importance because it focused on children in a space that's confined and where they have limited access to leaving," said Alecia Sanchez of the American Cancer Society.

Neither side argues that secondhand smoke is healthy or risk-free, but they disagree over the extent to which opening a car window reduces the risk to a child.

The California Air Resources Board classified secondhand smoke as a toxic air contaminant in 2006 because of its potential for causing cancer, heart disease, asthma or other respiratory ailments.

Children who spend one hour in a smoke-filled car can be exposed to the same amount of toxic chemicals as if they had smoked 17 to 35 filter-tipped cigarettes, according to the California Medical Association Foundation.