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No butts behind wheel? N.J. moves on smokers

New Jersey and some other states are considering putting the brakes on drivers who like to smoke while behind the wheel.
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New Jersey Assemblyman John McKeon, D-Essex,  outside his law office in Springfield, N.J., last Thursday. McKeon has sponsored a measure that calls for a ban on smoking while driving in the state.Mike Derer / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Ashtrays have been disappearing in cars like fins on Cadillacs, and so could smoking while driving in New Jersey, under a measure introduced in the Legislature.

Although the measure faces long odds, it still has smokers incensed and arguing it’s a Big Brother intrusion that threatens to take away one of the few places they can enjoy their habit.

“The day a politician wants to tell me I can’t smoke in my car, that’s the day he takes over my lease payments,” said John Cito, a financial planner from Hackensack with a taste for $20 cigars.

Those cigars, pipes and cigarettes would become no-nos for drivers. Offenders would be stung with a fine of up to $250, under the measure, whose sponsor said it’s designed more to improve highway safety than protect health.

Some states, including New Jersey, have considered putting the brakes on smoking while children are in the car. But none have gone for an outright ban on smoking while driving, according to Washington, D.C.-based Action on Smoking and Health, the country’s oldest anti-tobacco organization.

Smokers, feeling like easy targets, say enough already. They argue they’ve been forced outside office buildings, run off the grounds of public facilities, and asked to pony up more in per-pack excise taxes when states feel a budget squeeze.

“With smoking, it’s becoming increasingly fashionable to target legislation or prohibitions,” said George Koodray, a member of the Metropolitan Cigar Society, a 100-strong group that meets in Paterson for dinner and a smoke.

Distracted drivers
Assemblyman John McKeon, a tobacco opponent whose father died of emphysema, sponsored the legislation. He cites a AAA-sponsored study on driver distractions in which the automobile association found that of 32,000 accidents linked to distraction, 1 percent were related to smoking.

The measure, co-sponsored by Assemblywoman Lorretta Weinberg, a fellow Democrat, was introduced last month just before lawmakers’ summer break. It faces some improbable odds for passing.

Some lawmakers may fear the bill is frivolous compared with more pressing issues like taxes, said political analyst David Rebovich.

And there’s this to consider: Traffic safety groups acknowledge motorists now widely ignore the state’s year-old law against using hand-held cell phones, so why would smoking be any different?

Mitchell Sklar, of the New Jersey State Association of Chiefs of Police, said police departments may balk at enforcing such a law. “In general, we’d rather not try to incrementally look at every single behavior and make those a violation,” he said.