I have never seen Richard Longshore, but I like to imagine that the California assemblyman is ruggedly built for the physical defense of liberty and florid from the rhetorical defense of it. During the debate on a bill to ban smoking on public transportation in California, the chain-smoking legislator said:
''I think this is really a civil-rights issue. First you say, 'Smokers get to the back of the bus!' And now you're telling smokers to get off the bus.''
This analogy was not received politely by antismoking activists. They increasingly resemble the man Joseph Epstein, the essayist, says could not be described as irascible because he was permanently irasced. But opponents of smoking on airlines are right. The science is clear and so, therefore, is the ethics of the matter.
The most hazardous aspect of air travel (aside from the drives to and from airports) is breathing cabin air. Inhalation of smoke by smokers is the nation's largest single preventable cause of death and disability. For nonsmokers closely confined with smokers, as in airplanes, smoke exhaled by smokers is bad. Even worse is ''sidestream smoke'' that comes from a cigarette's burning tip between puffs. The temperature of combustion that produces sidestream smoke is lower than during puffing and produces more pollutants.
Smoking on airplanes intensifies in bursts when the ''no smoking'' light goes off, thereby producing high concentrations of pollutants. The separation of smokers and nonsmokers in planes where air is recirculated does little to protect nonsmokers. Carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide -- both increased by smoking -- accumulate in the dry cabin air. To counter the effects of ''passive smoking,'' a passenger needs 50 to 75 cubic feet of clean air per minute. Passengers generally get a maximum of 20.
Flight attendants are inhaling smoke at the rate of a person living with a pack-a-day smoker. They are beginning to file workers' compensation claims and suits about ailments caused by long-term exposure to cabin smoke. The legal vulnerability of airlines will increase after forthcoming studies of the metabolized residue of nicotine in nonsmoking flight attendants.
Smoking also increases airlines' maintenance costs. Tar from smoke -- up to 200 pounds a year -- clogs valves and instruments. A 10-year-old jumbo jet burns thousands of extra gallons of fuel a year because of the weight of the glop.
Rep. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) shoved through the House a measure that would ban smoking on flights of two hours or less -- 80 percent of domestic flights. His measure would do this good deed by denying development funds for airports that permit landings of airplanes that allow smoking on such flights. Durbin had to use an appropriations amendment rather than a straightforward prohibition on smoking because a prohibition would have had to pass the Public Works and Transportation Committee. It is chaired by an opponent of Durbin's measure, Jim Howard (D-N.J.), who, Durbin says, has been a heavy smoker and is fighting the habit, but believes that two-hour smokeless flights would be too much torment for smokers.
Durbin's measure barely passed (198-193), even though the organization representing flight attendants endorsed it. The tobacco lobby enlisted the outdoor advertising lobby (the folks who put the Marlboro man between you and the scenery) in opposition, and both were joined by the pilots, who ostensibly are worried about crazed smokers causing fires in lavatories. Another reason may be that some pilots want to smoke. A more important reason, says Durbin, is that the pilots do not want to give offense to the senator who chairs the Commerce Committee's aviation subcommittee -- Wendell Ford of tobacco-growing Kentucky.
Durbin's measure, and a more comprehensive ban favored by Utah's Sen. Orrin Hatch, face the formidable opposition of North Carolina's Jesse Helms. He presumably will manage to support tobacco interests without presenting himself as the Martin Luther King of downtrodden smokers.
Alas, in most American arguments the language of fundamental rights is as thick as the smoke in airplanes. In 1905, Pennsylvania's governor vetoed a restriction on public spitting: ''It is a gentleman's right to expectorate.'' Spitting, a once-sacred right now long since abridged, is only obnoxious and unhygienic. Smoking inflicts on nonsmokers 84 known carcinogens.
True, you cannot swing a cat by the tail these days without banging its head against someone who wants to regulate or ban behavior that he disapproves of. But the antismoking movement is merely self-defense by innocent bystanders. Were it just an attack on the unaesthetic, the movement would be broadened to advocate a ban on chewing gum. However, no moderate person wants to ban chewing gum, except Juicy Fruit.