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States and cities around the nation are following Arkansas' lead in protecting young children from close encounters with secondhand smoke while traveling on public streets and highways.

The Arkansas Legislature banned smoking in cars with young children quickly and quietly last year. Since the Arkansas law went into effect in July 2006, similar bans have been approved in Louisiana; Bangor, Maine; Rockland County, N.Y.; Puerto Rico and the Australian state of South Australia.

The bill, which bans smoking in passenger vehicles where a child younger than 6 is riding in a car seat, was backed by then state-Rep. Bob Mathis, D-Hot Springs.

"I'm very pleased about the snowball effect," Mathis said. "It has brought an awareness to smoking around children, whether it's in a car, at home, or anywhere else for that matter."

The measure passed in an April 2006 special session that was primarily devoted to education funding, though the Legislature also passed an indoor workplace smoking ban.

"I am not on an anti-smoking crusade. In fact, I'm probably alive today because I quit," said Mathis, who quit smoking more than two years ago. "I'm very proud of what has happened."

Arkansas' law is punishable by a $25 fine.

Dr. Carolyn Dresler, chief of the state Department of Health's Tobacco Prevention and Cessation Program, said other laws that have followed are tougher.

"Arkansas set the bar low and others are looking to make it stricter," Dresler said, noting that in Bangor smoking is illegal in vehicles with passengers younger than 18.

Mathis said some of his colleagues didn't take him seriously - especially because he voted against the workplace smoking ban.

"I felt that people that own a business or restaurant should still be able to decide how they want their business to be run," he said. "If people knew beforehand a restaurant was a smoke-free place they could choose not to go there."

But the House and Senate eventually passed the ban on smoking in cars, thanks to help from fellow lawmakers who stood up for the measure.

"No one really gave me a chance," Mathis said. "I felt like it was a very legitimate piece of legislation and I'm proud of what happened."


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