How Frank Lautenberg changed public health in America

The big news in D.C. today: Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) has passed away at the age of 89. He was the last World War II veteran serving in the Senate and has been in the chamber almost continuously since 1982 (there was a brief retirement phase in 2001-02).

Mel Evans, File/Associated Press

What's surprising, though, is that Lautenberg has had an enormous impact on public health policy in the United States during his 29 years in the Senate. He's responsible for the smoking ban on airplanes, the minimum drinking age, and the current laws against drunk driving. Just for starters.

So here's a look back at some of his big policies over the years:

--Banned smoking on airplanes. In the late 1980s, Lautenberg helped pass through a series of bills that prohibited smoking on airplanes — first on short flights, then later on all flights. Those bills were the first bans on smoking in public spaces, a practice that eventually became widespread. As it happens, Lautenberg himself was a former two-packs-a-day smoker who later recanted. "There's a consciousness about smoking that didn't exist before," he said in 1989.

--Raised the national minimum drinking age to 21. One of Lautenberg's first big pieces of legislation, authored as freshman in 1984, was the National Minimum Drinking Age Act, which required states to set the minimum drinking age at 21 — or they would lose some of their federal highway money.

That bill made the United States one of only three countries in the world with a drinking age over the age of 18; the others are Iceland and Japan. Note that some experts, like Mark Kleiman, have argued that the drinking-age laws have both pros and cons, saving lives but also "trivializ[ing] lawbreaking by enacting a law that almost everyone breaks, and breaks without apparent harm."

--Lowered the definition of drunk driving. In 1998, Lautenberg authored another bill that would require all states to lower the legal threshold for drunken driving from .10 blood-alcohol content to .08. It passed two years later and affected 35 states in all.

Researchers have found that lowering the threshold reduced the number of fatal crashes in the United States: One 2007 study, looking at traffic fatalities after the law was passed, estimated that the lower standard saves about 360 lives per year.

--Prevented domestic violence abusers from owning guns. In 1997, Lautenberg got an amendment to the omnibus budget passed that prohibited anyone who has been convicted of a domestic violence misdemeanor from owning a gun. Recent research has suggested that the rules led to a 10 percent decrease in intimate-partner homicide. (The amendment has also generated a fair bit of controversy, because it didn't exempt members of the military or police officers.)

--Created a public database for chemical pollution. Back in 1986, Lautenberg wrote a bill that established the Toxics Release Inventory (TRI), a publicly available database with information on toxic chemical releases inside the United States. After the database came out, many companies said they hadn't realized they were churning out so much pollution — and firms like Monsanto voluntarily agreed to cut back.

The TRI eventually led to stricter regulations on mercury pollution from power plants by the the Environmental Protection Agency. And, in recent years, the EPA has tried to duplicate the effort for greenhouse gases, creating maps allowing people to check out the biggest stationary sources of global-warming emissions in their area.

There were a number of other key votes and bills over the years, but those were the ones that arguably had the biggest impact on public health policy. More recently, Lautenberg had put together a bill with Sen. David Vitter (R-La.) that would overhaul U.S. chemical-safety laws for the first time in 37 years. The bill has yet to pass, although Lautenberg's office had told me that this legislation had been the senator's big priority for his final term.

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Timothy B. Lee · June 3, 2013