TALLAHASSEE — Rebekah Morffi remembers riding in a car when she was 5 years old with her grandmother, whose cigarette smoke saturated the interior.
"I just remember suffering in the back seat with nobody to help out," said Morffi, a freshman at Bloomingdale High School in Valrico.
So she proposed legislation to ban smoking in cars around kids. Morffi and seven other Hillsborough County high school students presented the idea Wednesday, winning unanimous support from the Senate Transportation Committee.
The legislation would make it illegal to smoke in a car when children younger than 16 are present. It would be a secondary offense, so an officer could not pull someone over because they are smoking. But if they are stopped for another reason and are in violation, it would count against them.
A violation would result in a $100 penalty, although the bill gives the officer the latitude to issue a warning and give the person antismoking information.
Florida is one of 23 states to propose similar legislation and would join four others that have enacted such laws.
The students are members of the "Ought to be a Law" civics program in Hillsborough County. Students from each of the county's high schools propose ideas for bills, and they compete for the right to have their proposal sponsored by local lawmakers.
Rep. Kevin Ambler, R-Tampa, created the program and sponsored the bill in the House. He said the bill's next steps would teach the students the intricacies of the legislative process. They now hope to persuade other legislators to attach the proposal to other bills.
Ambler said the legislation is not a novelty and "has a fair chance, just like many other bills right now."
The students came prepared for Wednesday's committee hearing, though some were admittedly nervous. They stayed up until about 2 a.m. the night before working on a presentation filled with medical studies, statistics and personal stories.
The students argued that the legislation is similar to laws punishing parents who leave children alone in cars or don't buckle them up.
"If we didn't have those laws, not everyone would do it. We'd have kids dying because they don't have their seat belts on and because they were left in hot cars," said Fadwa Hilili, a junior at Tampa Bay Technical High School. "We definitely need this law to make sure children are safe from the dangers of secondhand smoke."
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention notes that infants and children are particularly vulnerable to the toxins in secondhand smoke because they are still developing.
Exposed children tend to have weaker lungs and be more susceptible to acute respiratory ailments and ear infections. Exposure also makes babies more likely to die from sudden infant death syndrome, according to the CDC Web site.
Secondhand smoke is responsible for an estimated 150,000–300,000 cases of bronchitis and pneumonia each year, and riding in a vehicle is one of the main ways children are exposed, the CDC says.
Several lawmakers commended the program for getting children engaged in public service. Tampa Republican Sen. Victor Crist, who sponsored the bill, told a story from when he was an aide to lawmakers decades ago.
"I remember the five-hour trip back to St. Petersburg with the good senator and the good representative that I was here with — with the windows up and them puffing away on cigars," he said. "In their honor, I'd like to see this bill passed."
Lee Logan can be reached at (850) 224-7263 or firstname.lastname@example.org.