The Fight to Ban Smoking on Flights - OZY | A Modern Media Company

The Fight to Ban Smoking on Flights

The Fight to Ban Smoking on Flights

By Sean Braswell



Because snuffing out a pernicious pastime sometimes takes several courageous souls willing to start a firestorm.

By Sean Braswell

Amid the security checks, cramped seating and baggage fees, it’s easy to pine for the glory days of air travel. When food was abundant (and included in the price of your ticket), you had room to cross your legs and fashionable air hostesses handed out cocktails and chewing gum. And if you wanted to light up, then — like most anywhere else — you simply lit up.

Of course for every Don Draper puffing away on a cigarette in nicotine-fueled contentment, there were dozens of passengers and crew members suffering in silence.

The smoke-filled cabin seems hard to imagine today, a quaint relic of a bygone era when travel also meant white gloves and meaningful customer service. But the right, as John F. Kennedy put it in another context, “to breathe air as nature provided it” — or at least as Delta and United recycled it — was far from a given. Just 25 years ago, thanks to the efforts of an intrepid few, from key lawmakers to, yes, valiantly disagreeable flight attendants, a public health hazard went from established custom to punishable offense.

A smoking section on an airplane … is like having a peeing section in a swimming pool.

The fight to keep the “No Smoking” sign on in airplanes crossing the friendly skies was not an easy one. In 1964, the Surgeon General’s Report on Smoking and Health, delineating the deadly consequences of tobacco use, dropped like a bomb on an American public in which 42 percent of adults smoked (compared with only 19 percent today).

Even with these findings, however, early efforts to make commercial aircrafts smoke-free gained little traction. A decade later, airlines were required to provide separate smoking and nonsmoking sections, a rather toothless gesture. As one critic quipped, “A smoking section on an airplane … is like having a peeing section in a swimming pool.”

Beyond public health concerns, in-flight cigarettes also posed a fire hazard, with crew members frequently forced to put out smoldering seat cushions, and one Varig Airlines flight that crashed in Paris in 1973 — possibly the result of a fire that started after a passenger dropped an unextinguished cigarette in the restroom trash bin.

2 people / pilots sticking their head out a cockpit window of a plane as they smoke

Source Getty

The turning point in the battle to banish smoking on planes — one that would shift public opinion and galvanize legislators, industry members and public health advocates — came in 1986, when a report from the National Academy of Science found that flight attendants were exposed to the same amount of secondhand smoke as someone living with a pack-a-day smoker, and “forcefully” recommended that “smoking be banned on all commercial flights within the United States.”

Flight attendants were exposed to the same amount of secondhand smoke as someone living with a pack-a-day smoker.

Among the most vocal advocates for turning the scientific findings into legislative action were, not surprisingly, the flight attendants, many of whom — despite their being nonsmokers — suffered from chronic bronchitis, asthma and laryngitis, among other conditions. Former flight attendant and leading antismoking advocate Patty Young later told Congress that working under such smoky conditions for hours on end meant that “at times my tears and mucus were the color or coffee or tea.”

Flight attendant union members were conspicuously present throughout the congressional hearings in 1989, with many giving testimony and many more helping with the larger public relations campaign. But the PR war was only half the battle.

Down on the floor, several emboldened legislators, including Rep. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., and Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., helped shepherd a bill that would forbid smoking on any domestic flight lasting less than six hours — roughly 99 percent of flights — in the face of fierce opposition from influential legislators from tobacco-growing states, including Senator Jesse Helms, R-N.C.

In the Senate, Helms and other senators resorted to procedural and parliamentary tactics to delay consideration of the bill, but Lautenberg — a former two-pack-a-day smoker — managed to muster enough votes to overcome the obstacles thrown in the bill’s path. 

The Senate finally approved the ban, the bill passed, and President George H.W. Bush signed it into law on November 21, 1989. In the 1990s, several airlines would adopt no-smoking policies for all their flights within, into and out of the U.S., but an official ban wouldn’t go into effect until 2000, signed into law by President Bill Clinton.  

“It’s like smoking in a telephone booth — repulsive,” Lautenberg said of the practice after the bill’s passage.

And the vast majority of grateful passengers today would agree. No ifs, ands or butts about it.

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