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m7148 BC-MN-XGR-SmokingBan-Ca 1stLd-Writethru 02-25 0668

Bill to ban smoking in cars with kids moves ahead

Eds: UPDATES throughout with details, quotes.

By ELIZABETH DUNBAR

Associated Press Writer

ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — Smoking is prohibited in Minnesota bars and strip clubs, but people can still freely smoke in their own cars — even with young children riding in the back seat.

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It’s a fact some state lawmakers want to change by banning smoking in cars when children are present. The effort overcame its first hurdle on Wednesday after a Senate panel heard testimony from a doctor and an 11-year-old asthma sufferer.

The bill comes before legislators about a year and a half after Minnesota’s statewide smoking ban took effect. The ban prohibits smoking in just about every workplace, including company cars carrying more than one person.

It only makes sense to extend that to protect children 17 and younger whose developing bodies are most vulnerable to secondhand smoke, said Sen. Sandy Pappas, a Democrat from St. Paul and the bill’s chief author.

"We’re really not trying to catch parents, we’re trying to educate parents," she said.

The bill would make the violation a secondary offense, meaning a law enforcement officer would first need another reason to pull over a motorist. A citation could cost a motorist up to $100.

Several other states, including California and Arkansas, have versions of the law.

While the idea of keeping children away from secondhand smoke received broad support from members of the Senate Health, Housing and Family Security Committee, some of the same concerns about individual rights that came up during the smoking ban debate have resurfaced.

In addition, a few senators raised concerns about adding yet another violation for which Minnesota drivers can be cited. Even if it’s only a secondary offense, Sen. Patricia Torres Ray said she’s concerned about racial profiling.

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"I believe in the intention you have here," said Torres Ray, a Minneapolis Democrat. "I am very concerned about some of the consequences that this type of action may bring."

Supporters of the bill emphasized the potential negative health effects — like asthma and exposure to toxins that inhibit brain development — that children could avoid.

Joe Chlebeck, an 11-year-old from Coon Rapids, told the committee about how secondhand smoke makes his asthma worse. "I get terrible headaches and sometimes breathing gets really hard," he said.

Joe said a family member sometimes smokes while he’s riding in the car, and he hopes the bill gets passed so that won’t happen anymore. He also brought lawmakers a petition in support signed by 36 of his friends. "This law would help me and all the other kids," he said.

Dr. Ed Ehlinger, who heads the University of Minnesota’s Boynton Health Service, told lawmakers that passing the bill could help change social norms while protecting the most vulnerable. Smoking bans "help protect the rights of everyone. The bill before you supports that same philosophy," he said.

But David Wicklund, a smoker from Minneapolis, told lawmakers he sees the bill as just another example of government trying to trample on people’s rights.

"This nonsmoking thing is getting carried away," he said. "This is a free country. We are free people."

Sen. John Doll, a Democrat from Burnsville, questioned how effective the bill would be, guessing that most parents are smart enough not to smoke in their cars when their children are there. He wondered whether it’s worth it to again offend smokers so soon after the statewide smoking ban took effect.

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"There are still open wounds for a lot of people, and now we’re jumping on this?" he said.

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