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Secondhand tobacco smoke is a toxic air contaminant that can reach unsafe levels in enclosed spaces such as cars and other vehicles. As scientific evidence of the health risks of exposure to secondhand smoke has mounted and smoke-free policies in public places have proliferated, a growing number of countries, state and local governments, and employers have taken steps to protect their citizens and employees from secondhand smoke in vehicles. These measures range from prohibiting smoking in public use vehicles, such as business vehicles and public transit, to private or personal use vehicles – specifically vehicles used when children are passengers.
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The only effective way to fully protect nonsmokers from harm is to eliminate smoking in enclosed spaces including homes, worksites, public places, and vehicles. This resource provides answers to several common questions about regulating smoking in cars when children are present.
Brief chart of state legislation prohibiting smoking in cars with children. Age thresholds vary among jurisdictions, ranging from under age 8 (Vermont) to under age 18 (California).
The recent trend in smoke-free state and local legislation has been to expand the definition of “workplace” to include vehicles used for company business. Governing bodies typically pass laws prohibiting smoking in business vehicles to protect the public health. Employers adopt similar policies to protect the health of their employees, and to meet their legal obligation to provide a safe workplace. Concern over health care costs of tobacco-related illnesses has also motivated many employers to adopt policies restricting smoking in company vehicles. Also, employees exposed to secondhand smoke in a workplace may have viable legal claims against their employer.
Examples of smoke-free laws and policies that prohibit smoking in vehicles used for business:
- Iowa Clean Indoor Air Act. Prohibits smoking in public transportation and vehicles owned, leased or provided by employers.
- New York Clean Indoor Air Act. Prohibits smoking in public means of mass transportation and company vehicles.
Exposure to secondhand smoke is particularly dangerous for children, whose organs are small and developing. Children exposed regularly to secondhand smoke are susceptible to increased and severe common childhood illnesses and are at higher risk for serious, long-term diseases. As a result, a growing number of jurisdictions in the United States and abroad have adopted measures regulating smoking in personal vehicles when children are passengers.
Despite the trend to prohibit smoking in enclosed spaces, including cars, where children remain vulnerable, such smoke-free measures often face opposition from those who express concern about privacy and enforcement issues. Proponents of these laws point out the compelling scientific evidence for protecting children from secondhand smoke. They explain that there is no constitutional right to smoke, and that a smoke-free vehicle law does not violate any fundamental privacy right. They also emphasize that the purpose of smoke-free car laws, like child safety seat belt laws, is to protect the health and safety of children, and that these laws are typically enforced in similar ways.
- Cal. Health & Safety Code § 118947, prohibits smoking in a moving or parked vehicle when a child younger than 18 is present
- Me. Rev. Stat. Ann. 22 § 1549, prohibits smoking in vehicles when a child younger than 16 is present
- Other sample state legislation: Arkansas, Louisiana, Puerto Rico
- Sample local ordinances: Bangor, ME; Rockland County, NY; Keyport, NJ; West Long Branch, NJ
- Sample laws that ban smoking in vehicles transporting foster children: Arizona, Maine, New Jersey, Oregon, Texas, Vermont, Washington
- Laws Banning Smoking in Vehicles Carrying Children – International Overview, Canadian Cancer Society (8/31/11). List of jurisdictions that prohibit smoking in vehicles, including the age of the child and the date the law was passed and went into effect.
“Public transit” or “mass transportation” typically covers public buses, passenger railways, light rail lines, and other common carriers, as well as publicly owned taxicabs, limousines, boats, vans, trucks and other vehicles that carry members of the general public for public purposes. Federal transportation laws prohibit smoking on vehicles such as interstate buses, while state and local laws regulate smoking on mass transit vehicles within their jurisdictions. Mass transit passenger railroads have their own smoking policies.
- The U.S. Department of Transportation prohibits smoking on all buses transporting passengers in interstate service, with the exception of charter carriers. Violators are subject to a penalty of $550. 49 C.F. R. § 374.201.
Select state laws and provisions
- Minnesota’s Clean Indoor Air Act prohibits smoking on public transportation, which includes light and commuter rail transit; buses; enclosed bus and transit stops; taxis, vans, limousines, and other for-hire vehicles other than those operated by the lessee; and ticketing, boarding, and waiting areas in public transportation terminals.
- National Railroad Passenger Corporation (Amtrak). All Amtrak trains, Thruway buses and stations are non-smoking, with exception of the Auto Train, where passengers may smoke in a designated, enclosed smoking room located on the lower level of the Lounge Car. State or local laws may prohibit smoking on station platforms.
Employees and Smoke-free Cars
- Mandating a Tobacco-free Workforce: A Convergence of Business and Public Health Interests, Micah Berman & Rob Crane, William Mitchell Law Review, Symposium Proceedings (2007) (213 Kb). Describes increased health care and productivity costs of smoking employees and legal measures that employers can take to regulate smoking.
- Fundamentals of Smoke-free Workplace Laws, Americans for Nonsmokers’ Rights, et. al. (2008). Guidelines from national public health organizations on passing and implementing effective smoke-free workplace laws.
Children and Smoke-free Cars
- Video, “Smoke-free Cars with Kids: A Scientific Demonstration of Secondhand Smoke Exposure,” produced by the California Tobacco Control Program. This cutting edge demonstration measures the dangerously high levels of fine particulate matter in a car with someone smoking and discusses the damaging health effects secondhand smoke has on children. It was conducted to announce the implementation of California's Smoke-free Cars with Minors law.
- Campaign for Tobacco-free Kids, Secondhand Smoke, Kids and Cars (October 2018).