The House subcommittee on aviation yesterday opened hearings on legislation that could lead to a complete smoking ban on commercial airlines.
The committee, headed by Rep. Norman Y. Mineta (D-Calif.), is considering six bills to either limit or prohibit smoking on airplanes. The hearings come after the House and Senate Appropriations Committees attached amendments to the Department of Transportation appropriation bill that would ban cigarette smoking on all airline flights with a duration of two hours or less.
In July, the House narrowly approved the cigarette amendment, which would cover approximately 80 percent of all domestic flights. Last week, the Senate Appropriations Committee adopted a similar measure. The Senate prohibition would last three years.
Rep. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.), who led the fight for the antismoking amendment, said members since have received a "storm of letters" and have been heavily lobbied by tobacco interests opposed to such measures. But Durbin and other members of Congress indicated yesterday that time may be running out on the tobacco lobby and smokers. Smokers endanger the health of other passengers and flight crews who are forced to inhale polluted air, according to supporters of limiting smoking.
"The proper question to his neighbor when a person lights up on an aircraft is not, 'Do you mind if I smoke?' but 'Do you mind if we smoke?' " said Rep. James H. Scheuer (D-N.Y.), who has proposed a complete ban on in-flight smoking.
Rep. Sherwood L. Boehlert (R-N.Y.), a smoker, said he cast his vote last July against the ban. Since then, he said, he has struggled with himself over whether he was right to do so. "I think I cast the wrong vote," he said.
With increasing restrictions on smoking in public space, the debate over smoking on airlines has been growing in intensity. Advocates of a ban were given a boost in 1986, when the National Academy of Sciences recommended smoking be prohibited on all domestic flights.
California voted last month to prohibit cigarette smoking on flights beginning and ending within the state, and Air Canada offers "nonsmoking" flights, which have proven to be enormously popular, supporters of a smoking ban said yesterday.
Mineta told the hearing yesterday, "I personally believe some further regulation to limit smoking on aircraft is needed." Cigar and pipesmoking are already banned on airlines.
Mineta said he had voted against the Durbin amendment in July, noting that such legislation is more properly handled in authorizing legislation than through the appropriations process.
"Having said this, I must also indicate my support for Mr. Durbin's intent as well as the intent of the other legislative proposals," he added.
Opponents of the measure, who included representatives from tobacco-producing states, smokers and the Tobacco Institute, argued that not enough evidence has been produced to support banning cigarette smoking on airplanes and that such a ban might be a safety hazard.
"While we're sensitive to nonsmokers, we also are sensitive to smokers' rights," said Rep. Arlan Stangeland (R-Minn.).
"Congress should be satisfied that a problem truly exists" before it acts, he said.
"There are much more pressing problems in connection with airline service" than smoking, said Rep. H. Martin Lancaster (D-N.C.). Lancaster also raised the safety question.
"What about the surreptitious smoker who goes into the restroom to sneak a couple of puffs?" he asked.
The Department of Transportation said it wants time for a more thorough review of the potential hazards to other passengers posed by smokers.
"While we do not question that future regulatory action may be warranted concerning smoking aboard airliners, we cannot do this reasonably without being supported by more factual information," said Matthew V. Scocozza, assistant secretary for policy and international affairs.