NEW YORK — THE US House of Representatives and the Senate will shortly vote on the transportation appropriations bill. Included in that legislation is an amendment banning smoking on virtually all domestic flights 95 days after the bill is signed by the president. The ban was passed Monday by a House-Senate conference committee. In an interview, one of the architects of the legislation, Rep. Richard Durbin (D) of Illinois says the vote is indicative of the grass-roots support the legislation attracted. The conference committee initially voted against the amendment, which would have resulted in a total smoking ban on domestic flights. Representative Durbin says, however, that the tobacco lobby ``knew if we took it to the floor, our position would prevail by a vote of 2 to 1.''
To avoid the embarrassment of losing a vote on the floor of the House, the tobacco industry agreed to a compromise. The wording of the ban was changed to exclude 24 domestic flights from the legislation. Changing the legislation, under the arcane rules of Congress, meant the legislation would go back to the House and Senate but it would not require a roll-call vote.
``I've said the tobacco lobby is a lot like photographic film. If they are exposed to sunlight, they are ruined. They have tried to avoid every possible vote on this issue so the strength of the health forces is not on the public record,'' Durbin says. The congressman says he plans to continue working toward a total ban on smoking on airplanes. The only flights exempted are long flights between Honolulu, Alaska, Denver, Chicago, and New York. ``We are going to try to get the airlines to voluntarily make those flights no smoking,'' says Durbin.
He says the airlines have already shifted their position. Originally, the airline industry was against the ban. But after the two-hour ban went into effect and Northwest Airlines instituted its own prohibition against smoking, Durbin says he had a meeting with two airline executives. ``The CEOs [chief executive officers] of two airlines told me privately that even though they did not have the courage to do what Northwest had done, they were rooting for me to win. They told me you can't imagine the administrative nightmare of smoking and nonsmoking reservations, as well as the safety hazard.''
Getting smoking banned on airplanes has been Durbin's passion for the last three years. He says he decided to pursue the legislation even though his staff told him it would be impossible.
But the congressman had an inner drive, pushing him on. When Durbin was 14 years old, his father, a two-pack-a-day smoker, died of lung cancer.
Then, three years ago, he was forced to sit in the smoking section of an airplane. He asked the gate agent, ``Can't you do anything about it?'' She looked at his ticket and said, ``No, I can't but you can, congressman.'' He recalls stewing over the remark, finally deciding to take on the tobacco lobby.
Now, he says, passage of the legislation makes him feel good. ``You are not just doing something that is good for the health of the country, but also for the individual who decides that because of this amendment, he or she is finally going to quit smoking. I think there are lives that are going to be a lot better because of that.''