To set the record straight, I do not belong to the Congress of Saints or the Sanctimonious Nonsmokers Clubs of America. If I could smoke a single cigarette with a demitasse of expresso after a splendid feast of Chincoteague oysters and rare filet mignon, I would do so without a second's hesitation.
The fact of the matter, though, is that I cannot smoke a single cigarette. So I don't smoke at all. (Currently speaking.) People who still smoke have my sympathy, and people who can enjoy an occasional cigarette have my envy. I am not -- at least I hope I am not -- one of those truly obnoxious reformed smokers who has gotten holier than thou about something that began as a personal habit and has become a topic of national debate.
The drive to create a smoke-free society has progressed from polite frowning of smokers to outright bans on smoking in the work place. Now, the battle has taken to the heavens as the antismoking lobby moves to ban smoking in the cabins of airliners.
The House of Representatives passed legislation this summer that would ban smoking on flights lasting less than two hours. The vote was 198 to 193 on an amendment to the $10.9 billion Transportation Department appropriation bill that would cut off airport improvement money to any airport that gives landing privileges to airlines that permit smoking during short flights. The ban would affect about 80 percent of all domestic flights.
Much of the opposition to the ban, understandably, was led by representatives from tobacco states and a good part of the opposition was based on the methods used to get the ban passed. Backers were accused of using back-door tactics to pass legislation of national importance without giving it the proper windy hearings.
Principal sponsors of the legislation were Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) and C.W. Bill Young (R-Fla.), both members of the Appropriations Committee. Durbin is a nonsmoker whose father was a chain smoker and died of lung cancer. According to an aide, Durbin was in an airport getting a ticket to travel back to his district when he was put in the smoking section because no other seats were available. He asked the flight attendant at the ticket counter whether she could do anything about it. According to the aide, the attendant told Durbin: "Congressman, I can't do anything about smoking on airplanes, but you can."
The floor debate on the Durbin amendment found liberals such as Mickey Leland (D-Tex.), who is allergic to smoke, joining forces with Robert K. Dornan (R-Calif.), who thinks that because of aging he has become allergic to smoke too. As far as Dornan is concerned, the effects of passive smoking in airplanes is not only a health issue, but also one of "civility and decency, to people who do not want to breathe contaminated air."
He told of complaining about the smoke in the middle of the cabin during a recent flight from Los Angeles. The flight attendant told him the smoke was spread evenly around the plane, but that she had a worse problem than he did. She had to work the smoking section as well as the nonsmoking section and she had become so allergic to the smoke that she had to go to the latrine and vomit during flights.
The surgeon general issued a report last year that estimated that 2,400 deaths are caused each year by exposure to secondhand smoke in the office. For the flight attendants, the airline cabin is their office. Durbin, at the end of the debate, said that both the surgeon general and the National Academy of Sciences have stated that passive smoking kills. "Take that story about jurisdiction to the bedside of someone gasping for breath and tell them, 'We just need a little more time.' "
On Oct. 1, the Senate Appropriations Committee approved a ban on smoking during flights lasting less than two hours. The Senate prohibition would last three years. Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) has vowed to fight the bill, even if it became part of a continuing resolution to finance the entire federal government that is up for a vote in mid-November.
White-knuckle flyers who light up the moment the nonsmoking signs go off aren't going to like the ban one bit. Nor is the tobacco lobby, which has lost a couple of important rounds in the battle over the impact of secondary smoke on nonsmokers. But there are just too many people, both who work on airplanes and who travel on them, who are being made uncomfortable and ill by the cigarette smoke that remains in the cabins. Two hours isn't too much to ask a smoker to forgo the pleasure. Besides, a little sacrifice is good for the soul.