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Published: Saturday, 1/20/2007

It's hard to remember the bad old days of smoking on planes

It's hard to remember the bad old days of smoking on planes

The question came to me more quickly than I could open the package of pretzels. When was smoking banned on airlines? I was in the perfect position, in the back seat of a plane, to think about such historic facts in American airline history. In fact, I have been thinking about it a lot lately, because on the last four flights I have been seated a few steps from the lavatory in the back, a section that was once reserved for smokers.

I detest smoking and can be a real pain if the slightest opportunity arises for me to voice an opinion. I consider Ohio's law banning smoking in the workplace and public areas as the best news of 2006. Why 21 percent of the American population still smokes is beyond me.

Yes, I used to smoke-too much. Therefore I have vivid memory of the days of smoking on planes. After takeoff, the smoking light went on and we all lit up. In minutes the cabin was blue with smoke and the tiny pullout ashtrays on the seat arm were full, then overflowing, and smelly. The worst offense was by people who left a long cigarette burning in the ashtray while they ate their meal or finished a novel. Meals? Yes, there were meals, not just pretzels back then.

I don't recall smokers having sympathy for, or being particularly polite to, nonsmokers who innocently inhaled second-hand smoke as their clothing absorbed the smell. Nor do I remember being criticized by other passengers who might have hated smoking and its pollution then as I do today.

Activist Polly Young is a name to remember in the fight in America for smoke-free workplaces. Polly, an American Airlines flight attendant, began the fight for a tobacco free environment on airlines in 1966. She was joined by other attendants, and together they called on health advocates for support to achieve clean air in airline cabins. The efforts of Ms. Young and other airline employees is considered crucial in the progress that was eventually made for smoke-free flights. When the battle reached Washington many years later, members of the Joint Council of Flight Attendants were in the U.S. House of Representative as a visible reminder their health was one reason for the ban.

The time line between Ms. Young's brave move to improve her workplace high in the sky and to the smoke-free air travel we enjoy today is a laundry list of government and consumer developments.

In 1969 consumer advocate Ralph Nader petitioned the Federal Aviation Administration. The FAA is an agency within the U.S. Department of Transportation charged with regulating airline safety.

That same year John Banzhaf, the founder of the Action on Smoking and Health, petitioned for separate sections for smoking and no-smoking on airlines.

In 1972, after Ralph Nader petitioned the Civil Aeronautics Board, it was ruled that airlines provide separate sections.

In 1976, the CAB banned all cigar and pipe smoking on airlines.

In 1973, smoking in lavatories was banned after a fire in a lavatory was believed to cause a crash when 124 people were killed.

Although giving smokers a separate section was a major step forward in acknowledging the discomfort of smoking in an enclosed area, it was not successful. Passengers complained of seating enforcement, and if seats filled in the no-smoking section passengers, had to sit with the smokers.

The next step, in 1988, was a ban on smoking on flights of two hours or less.

In 1990, the ban was extended to all U.S. flights of six hours or less. A similar ban was adopted by Canadian airlines, and today we can fly just about anywhere in the world smoke free.

Thank you, Polly Young.



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