Legislator proposes ban on smoking in cars while kids are inside

Jan 9, 2018

An Erie County legislator and candidate for New York State Assembly has introduced a proposal that, if passed, would ban smoking in a car while a child is inside the vehicle. Although Patrick Burke admits details must still be hammered out, his bill is already drawing the support of local cancer researchers and anti-smoking advocates.

Burke appeared Tuesday morning on the campus of the Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center. He explained that he was inspired to research and draft this bill after witnessing a motorist smoking, with the car window opened slightly, with a child sitting in the back seat.

Anthony Billoni delivers opening remarks inside the Scott Beiler Clinical Sciences Center on the Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center campus. Behind him are Roswell Park research scientist Dr. Mark Travers and Erie County Legislator Patrick Burke, the latter of whom has proposed a law banning smoking in cars while children are passengers.
Credit Michael Mroziak, WBFO

"In 2018, this legislation shouldn't even be necessary but unfortunately it is," Burke said. 

Burke said he learned through research that several countries have similar bans in effect. Domestically, such bans exist in the states of Arkansas, California and Louisiana. Within New York State, such bans are in place in Rockland County and in the City of Schenectady.

Backing the ban is Dr. Mark Travers, research scientist in the Department of Health Behavior at Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center. He says his own work has found that exposure to second-hand smoke is even riskier among children than it is to adults. 

He noted that children breathe faster, have less-developed immune systems and absorb more pollutants, thus making them more susceptible to cell mutations.

"My research has shown that if someone smokes in the tight, confined space of a vehicle, children are exposed to extremely high levels of particulate matter," Dr. Travers said. "Even if a vehicle is ventilated, unhealthy levels of second-hand smoke are still present. Smoking just one cigarette in such a small, confined space can release extreme levels of toxins that are dangerous for children."

Anthony Billoni, director of Tobacco-Free Western New York, was present to throw his support behind Burke's bill.

"Even a brief exposure can be harmful to health," he said. "That's why we make it a priority every day, here in Erie County, to educate and advocate for less second-hand smoke exposure for our residents. Preventing smoking in cars, when youth are passengers, is an integral part of this work."

Burke explained that details of his bill, including penalties for those caught violating the ban, must still be discussed in a legislative committee.

"We're still negotiating in the Legislature what those penalties will be," he said. "I think part of it is we don't want this to be draconian. If someone doesn't realize what the health consequences are, or if they might not even know it's a law, we at least want a warning process in place."

A fine of $150 is possible for the first offense.

The Erie County lawmaker was asked whether his proposed ban might be an infringement on individual rights.

"I would say it's a matter of public health," Burke replied. "Those children certainly have the right to a future and a right to breathe clean, health air. Someone's habit should not force carcinogens and pollutants on a child's lungs."

Burke was also asked if he intended to bring similar legislation to the state level if elected to the Assembly this fall. He insisted his focus remains at this time at the county level.