Maine Bans Smoking While Driving with Youths Maine drivers can be pulled over and fined $50 for lighting up if a child younger than 16 is in the car. The ban is not the first of its type, but one doctor says it goes further than any other to curb exposure to secondhand smoke.
NPR logo

Maine Bans Smoking While Driving with Youths

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Maine Bans Smoking While Driving with Youths

Maine Bans Smoking While Driving with Youths

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


OK, Alison, here's a list of things you cannot do while driving.



MARTIN: DUI or DWI, drinking while - driving while under the influence of alcohol. In several states, there's DWC, driving while yabbering on a cell phone.


MARTIN: Tack another one on the list now. DWSWC, driving while smoking with child. Now, the acronym? OK, that's made up. But the law is real. The state of Maine has just passed one of the most restrictive smoking bans in the country.

Drivers can be pulled over and they can be fined 50 dollars for lighting up if a child under 16, of age, is in the car. The ban is not the first law of its type, but the man behind it says it goes further than any other effort so far to stamp out children's exposure to second-hand smoke.

Dr. Jonathan Shenkin is a pediatric dentist and professor of health policy at Boston University School of Dentistry. And he drove this push to enact a smoking ban from city ordinance into a state law in Maine. And he did this in - 2006 was kind of the turning point. He's on the phone now from Bangor, Maine. Dr. Shenkin, thanks for joining us.

Dr. JONATHAN SHENKIN (Clinical Assistant Professor, Health Policy and Health Services Research and Pediatric Dentistry, Boston University Goldman School of Dental Medicine): Good morning.

MARTIN: Good morning. So, in 2006, I understand you read a report by the U.S. surgeon general and that was really it for you. You decided something in that made you think, I've got to fight to push this. What was so compelling in that report?

Dr. SHENKIN: Well, I was reviewing the report that had just come out maybe the week prior, in late June of 2006, and there's one table that was very prominent for me, which was table 4.1, if anybody wants to look that up.

(Soundbite of laughter)


Dr. SHENKIN: What's pretty surprising is that it shows the trends of exposure to second-hand smoke for the entire U.S. population, and what's most interesting to me, and what really stood out, was that over the last 20 years or so, the U.S. population has seen a decline of about 75 percent exposure to second-hand smoke.

But the population that has seen the least reduction is actually children, and the population that had the highest levels of nicotine in their blood were children. And it was just shocking to me that adults and teenagers had lower levels of nicotine in their blood than children, and it was all from second-hand smoke.

MARTIN: Hm. So now, Maine has passed what appears to be the most restrictive law in the country. In Louisiana and Arkansas, a similar law applies to younger children.

Dr. SHENKIN: Right.

MARTIN: In California, the driver has to be pulled over for some reason other than that, before they can be fined for smoking. But in Maine, the driver can be fined even if the car is parked and the windows are down, right?

Dr. SHENKIN: Correct.

MARTIN: Is that a little extreme, perhaps? I mean, how much harm can really be done if you're sitting in a car and the windows are down?

Dr. SHENKIN: Well, what we've discovered, and this is only since we passed the city ordinance for the city of Bangor - Bangor happened to the first city in the United States to pass such an ordinance - is that Harvard and Stanford Universities both conducted studies that showed even with the windows open, in a motor vehicle, you had higher levels of second-hand smoke than you would find in a bar or restaurant that permitted smoking.

MARTIN: Hm. So, clearly, the next - I imagine that there are some people out there, in fact, who are not so pleased with this.

Dr. SHENKIN: Absolutely.

MARTIN: How far do you want this to go? I mean, the natural extension would be to say, fine, if you're going to pass these laws that regulate my life in a car, the next thing - it's a slippery slope. All of a sudden you're going to tell me I can't smoke at home.

Dr. SHENKIN: Right, and that was really one of the primary arguments that was brought about in the city council in Bangor, and fortunately, once we reached the state legislature, those arguments didn't come about at all.

The important thing to realize about the difference between a car and a home is that the levels of second-hand smoke that you would find in a motor vehicle, particularly in Maine, where you will have windows closed in the wintertime, is that you can actually have second-hand smoke levels that are actually 12 to 15 times higher than you would have in a home.

MARTIN: Because it's such a small space.

Dr. SHENKIN: Such a small space and the difference between a car and a home is if a child is in a kitchen, let's say, and their parents are smoking, they can just walk out and go to their bedroom. Whereas in a car, they're strapped in and there's no escape for that child.

And so, with levels that are 12 times higher and with no escape route for a kid to get out of that enclosed space, there's a huge difference between exposure levels in a home and a car. So I don't think that the next step is going to a home. There's just a huge gap between the harm that's induced in a car versus a home.

MARTIN: I understand that you were the child of parents who smoked. Has that affected your health?

Dr. SHENKIN: It hasn't affected my health, but it affected my thoughts about kids that are exposed to second-hand smoke. As a pediatric dentist, I, prior to this law being passed, would get four or five kids a day that would just reek of smoke, as if they had smoked a cigarette themselves, and I had gone through that myself as a child.

And once the city ordinance in Bangor passed, we have, I have maybe one child every month or two that smells a little bit like tobacco now. And so we've just seen a great effect on parental behavior because of this law.

MARTIN: Now, Arkansas was the first state to pass a law banning smoking in cars in 2006, and apparently that legislation quietly sailed through the legislature. But you had a more difficult time, right? At least, when the proposal was first made as a city ordinance in Bangor, even some anti-smoking groups opposed you. Why? What did they say?

Dr. SHENKIN: Well, when I proposed this in July of 2006, Arkansas had just passed it a couple of months beforehand. Nobody had actually ever engaged the public about this issue. In Arkansas, they just sort of passed it, and it just happened quietly. I didn't want that to happen. I wanted public debate to occur, and with public debate, we would probably get public education as well.

I was kind of surprised when I first proposed the idea, the pushback I received from statewide lobbying groups for public health. And they basically said to me, don't come to Augusta, the capital, with this idea. And so I decided to go to the city first. And they approved the idea. Ultimately, everybody got on board. And I can understand. I mean, nobody has done this before.

I mean, when we first proposed this in Bangor, Maine, nobody had really addressed this issue on a national level as we had, and so there had been no experience. And the fear was that people would be more concerned about civil liberties than the health and welfare of children. And the great news is that children won in Maine.

MARTIN: Dr. Jonathan Shenkin, pediatric dentist, professor of health policy at Boston University's School of Dentistry, and the man behind the push to enact a smoking ban in cars with children in the state of Maine. Hey, Dr. Shenkin, thank you very much for explaining this to us. We appreciate it.

Dr. SHENKIN: Thank you.

Copyright © 2008 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.