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Lawmakers should protect children from secondhand smoke

Johnson City Press • May 19, 2018 at 7:00 AM

We believe the question of whether to allow smoking in a vehicle in which a child is present is one of personal liberty — the child’s liberty to enjoy pollutant-free air and a life free of negative health effects.

Unfortunately, Tennessee’s representatives in the House did not feel the same way this year. After being snuffed out, resurrected, then passed by senators, a bill that would have banned smoking in cars and trucks in the presence of children younger than 14 was unceremoniously gutted, then extinguished for good when House lawmakers referred it to the Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee on the last day of the legislative session.

The proposed punishments for violating the ban weren’t very harsh — less than a slap on the wrist, even.

A first offense, which couldn’t have been the primary reason for a law enforcement officer to pull someone over, would have brought the smoker a warning citation. A second offense would have come with a Class D misdemeanor charge punishable by a $20 fine and no more than $10 in court costs. Third and subsequent offenses would be Class C misdemeanors with $50 fines and court costs limited to $10.

For about the cost of a carton of Marlboro Reds, you could pay off a third conviction for what some health experts say equates to child abuse.

Legislators were told as much during deliberation on the bill. One of their own, Republican Sen. Joey Hensley from Hohenwald, a family medicine practitioner, described the impacts of secondhand smoke on the children he’s examined as abuse, and he’s right.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, children exposed to secondhand smoke get sick more often. Their lungs grow less than children who breathe clean air, and they suffer more frequently from bronchitis, pneumonia, wheezing and coughing. Secondhand smoke can trigger asthma attacks in children, and it can cause them to have more frequent and more severe attacks, potentially threatening their lives with each attack. Then there are ear infections, which are more frequent in children exposed to secondhand smoke and are more likely to need operations to insert drainage tubes.

But our state representatives, who so often express the need to defend the rights of unborn children, were unconcerned with the rights of thousands of children in the state who have no choice but to inhale daily the hundreds of toxic chemicals and carcinogens rolled into a single cigarette and burned in a confined vehicle.

Preventing a lifetime of health problems for unsuspecting children isn’t an attack on personal freedoms or parental authority. It’s a commonsense solution to a problem that has plagued the state for decades.

We urge our lawmakers to take the lead in the next General Assembly to enact a ban on smoking in vehicles with minors present.

Then we can all breathe easy knowing our children are safe.

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