The absence of smoking on commercial airliners is something we all now take for granted. But it wasn’t always that way. The ban on smoking was the culmination of years of effort by many individuals and public health organizations fighting an industry that had held sway in the US Congress seemingly forever.
About a year ago I attended a book signing by Congressman John Lewis and was last in a long line of people waiting for his autograph. The book was “March: Book One” which tells the story of the congressman’s life-long involvement in the struggle for civil rights. But as I presented my copy of the book, I thanked him for his role in another, perhaps less momentous struggle, but one that affected the health of millions of Americans, the ban on smoking on airlines. I told him that I had appeared before his committee in October 1987 when Congress considered a ban on smoking on flights shorter than two hours.
“I will never forget that hearing,” he exclaimed “it was the longest in the history of the US Congress!” It was indeed after midnight when I finally got my chance to speak. That limited ban was approved and two years later, in June 1989, I again testified before the House Subcommittee on Aviation chaired by Congressman James Oberstar. This time we asked for a complete ban on smoking on all airline flights, regardless of duration. And twenty –five years ago that ban went into effect.
For ASH and the public health community, the twenty-fifth anniversary is a cause for celebration but not for resting on our laurels; rather it ought to be a call to action. Far too many youngsters are still enticed into a life of addiction to tobacco, far too many people still do not work in a smoke-free environment and far too many people still suffer the terrible consequences of tobacco use.
Our job is not done until the last cigarette has been extinguished, until the lure of nicotine is something of the past, like smoking on airplanes.
Alfred Munzer, MD
Chair, Action on Smoking and Health