AUGUSTA (AP) – Legislation that would make Maine the latest state to ban smoking in cars while children are present drew a strong showing of support before committee Tuesday, and Gov. John Baldacci’s office said he likely would sign it.

A pair of bills before the Health and Human Services Committee would prohibit smoking in a motor vehicle when someone under 18 years of age is present.

The bills, which are modeled after a Bangor city ordinance, would subject violators to $50 fines or, at the discretion of law enforcement officers, written warnings. Arkansas, California, Louisiana and Puerto Rico have enacted similar smoking bans.

A procession of public health and groups and children’s advocates urged the committee to support the bill, which they said gives children a voice to protect themselves from the dangers of secondhand smoke. No one testified against the identical bills, one sponsored by a Republican and the other by a Democrat.

Lawmakers did express some concern about whether such a law would lead to state controls over what Mainers do in their homes.

Gordon Smith, a lawyer who represents the Maine Medical Association, acknowledged the private property issue. With a car, he said, “you are on a public road and you have to have a license.”

“But the law does not stop at the front door to your house. You can’t beat your child, you can’t neglect your child. There are a great many things you can’t do at home,” said Smith. “I don’t know where this is going to stop, but this bill deals with automobiles.”

Smoking in a car’s limited passenger compartment can expose children to elevated concentrations of pollutants from second-hand smoke that can cause cancer and exacerbate asthma, said Becky Smith, representing the Maine Coalition on Smoking or Health.

Yet children comprise an age group that’s least protected by Maine’s anti-smoking laws, which apply to restaurants, bars and many other public locations, said Dr. Jonathan Shenkin, a Bangor pediatric dentist and children’s public health advocate who pushed for passage of Bangor’s ordinance.

The sponsor of one of the bills, Rep. Brian Duprey, takes conservative positions on many issues. But on this one, the Hampden Republican was swayed by what he saw in the child care centers he runs.

Children transported to his centers before nearby Bangor passed its ordinance “would reek of tobacco” and often were sick, he said. But after the ordinance went into effect, the nursery room smelled better and the children haven’t been as sick, he said.

“I can only attribute it, without scientific evidence, to that ordinance,” said Duprey.

A co-sponsor of one of the Maine bills, Rep. Sheryl Briggs, said it presents lawmakers with an opportunity to save public money.

By reducing the amount of secondhand smoke to which children are exposed, there will be fewer ear infections, asthma cases and other respiratory ailments, she said.

“It will reduce the number of doctor visits,” Briggs, D-Mexico, said in prepared testimony. “It will reduce the amount of money we spend on health care costs.”

Among the others supporting the legislation were the Maine Children’s Alliance, the Maine Lung Cancer Alliance, the American Academy of Pediatrics’ Maine chapter, the Maine Youth Action Network, Ignite Kennebec County and the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

Jeff Dobbs, who led an unsuccessful petition drive in Bar Harbor to pass an ordinance like Bangor’s, also made a pitch for a state law.

Dobbs, a former town councilor, said the proposal was rejected after some councilors argued that it was up to the state, not towns, to take such action.

As the bill is debated, Baldacci will monitor discussions to see if it would bring any unintended consequences, spokesman David Farmer said. But barring that, he would probably sign the legislation if it reaches his desk.

“At this point, he’s favorably inclined,” Farmer said.

The bills come up amid activity in other states and neighboring Canadian provinces on the issue. In December, Nova Scotia became the first province to ban smoking in cars carrying children, as the town of Wolfville, Nova Scotia, had done a month earlier.

New Brunswick is now considering a similar law.

AP-ES-01-22-08 1712EST

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