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Editorial: Erie County should ban smoking in cars

The law, if it is enacted, might not be aggressively enforced. In practice, it would surely be too difficult to cite every driver smoking with a child inside the vehicle. But Erie County should adopt this legislation, anyway. It will send the right message about a pernicious habit that risks the health of the helpless.

Erie County Legislator Patrick B. Burke proposed the measure, which is anything but unique. The county would be joining other jurisdictions in a sensible effort to protect children who are especially susceptible to secondhand smoke and who may suffer lifelong debilities from inhaling it.

It’s not a small matter. Mark Travers, a research scientist at Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center, noted that smoking one cigarette in a car can expose passengers to pollutants 10 times worse than those found in bars, when smoking was permitted in them. Even with a window rolled halfway down, air pollutants breathed in approach hazardous levels as measured by the Environmental Protection Agency, he said.

If adults make those choices — either to smoke or to ride in a car with a smoker — that’s one thing. But children can’t drive in a different car. They can’t insist that the adults put out the cigarette. All they can do is inhale the poisons. And they are more severely harmed by secondhand smoke that envelops them.

“Children breathe more rapidly,” Travers said. “They absorb more pollutants, have less developed immune systems and are more vulnerable to cellular mutations, making them more susceptible to the health effects of tobacco smoke pollution.” Among the possible consequences are asthma, ear infections, chronic lung disease, sudden infant death syndrome and cancer.

Even “thirdhand smoke” is a threat, he said: Air pollutants that settle into fabrics and other surfaces and can be re-released even when no one is smoking.

To many, this will seem like a Big Brother-nanny state response, but the fact is that our understanding of the hazards of tobacco smoke has evolved over decades of research, experience and suffering. We may not have known better in the 1950s, when doctors touted the benefits of smoking in ads, but we know better now. That requires better thinking and adjusted policies.

That’s why smoking is prohibited on airplanes. It’s why it’s not allowed in New York restaurants and bars, where employees would be exposed to secondhand smoke for hours at a time. Similarly — and especially — children should no more be exposed to cigarette smoke than any other toxic substance.

It takes no great leap to make that adjustment in thought. Just as no one would countenance children being regularly exposed to any other toxic substance — lead paint chips come to mind — so should society elevate its ideas about smoking.

The problem may come in enforcement, given the amount of work already expected of police officers. It’s a real issue, but part of the goal is to establish a standard and change the expectations of society. That was, in part, the goal of banning smoking in restaurants and bars. It’s a marker that, in this case, represents greater understanding of a threat to children.

No one should have a problem if police were to issue warnings to drivers for several months or even a year before starting to issue tickets. This is a long-term project to change behaviors that were once broadly acceptable. It’s important to protect children from the hazards of traveling in a smoke-filled vehicle, but it can be done in a way that seeks first to educate and persuade.

But it should be done. In fact, New York State should consider such a law to avoid the problem of patchwork ordinances as drivers travel across the state. There is no good reason children in Niagara County, or any other, shouldn’t be protected, too.

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