NEW YORK — THE flight from Los Angeles to Sydney is 14 hours. For smokers, the flight could be over half a day without a puff.
The United States, Australia, Canada, and New Zealand have held informal discussions about making all flights among them nonsmoking. An official at the US Department of Transportation said that the US will likely seek multilateral and bilateral agreements. "We're developing options on how to proceed," says the official, who requested anonymity.
"We're hopeful it will be a stimulus and model for other countries," says Don Newman, the US minister to the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO).
Mr. Newman himself is not involved in the discussions. But last month the ICAO recommended that its 178 members make all international flights smoke-free by July 1, 1996. Although the vote is nonbinding, most past ICAO resolutions have been enacted.
Canada was a strong supporter of the resolution. Its officials have set July 1, 1993, as the date when all Canadian airlines must be smoke-free on international routes. The Canadians would like competing airlines also to be smoke-free.
The ICAO cites safety as its main reason for banning smoking, and is currently conducting a study of transport-safety issues.
The group is trying to determine whether oxygen masks become inoperative because of the buildup of tar and nicotine on latches and valves. In addition, it is considering congressional testimony from flight attendants who say it is common for them to experience breathing difficulties on long international flights.
Flight attendants say smoke in airplanes sometimes causes laryngitis, hindering their ability to shout evacuation commands in an emergency. On a recent trip to Paris, flight attendant Judy Young says three attendants lost their voices, including one of the bilingual attendants. ICAO members also received a letter from a flight attendant who detailed how a cigarette became embedded in the fabric of her skirt. "I was set on fire," she recounted.
The US Senate would have to approve any US agreement with foreign countries, since it would fall under the category of a treaty. It is likely that President-elect Clinton would support the effort. In a release to the American Lung Association, Mr. Clinton states, "As president, I would certainly be willing to open a dialogue with other nations about the possibility of banning smoking on international commercial-passenger airline flights."
The air-transportation industry is mainly interested in international cooperation. "We are concerned about an uneven playing field, since smoking is still popular in France and Japan.... We would support it if it becomes an international standard that everyone supports," says Tim Neale, a spokesman for the Air Transport Association in Washington.
Some international airlines are implementing the ban unilaterally. Australia's Qantas now has three smoke-free flights a week from the US West Coast and has made all its flights to New Zealand free of smoking. Cathay Pacific is also trying it on some of its long Asian flights to Canada and the US. Other airlines also have some nonsmoking international flights.
Pro-health groups are acting on the ICAO resolution. The Coalition on Smoking OR Health plans meetings every six months with its worldwide membership to pressure governments on the issue. "If there is not early and rapid action by major countries with flag carriers, people will shrug their shoulders and say it is too difficult," says Fran Du Melle, deputy director of the American Lung Association, part of the coalition.
The tobacco industry maintains that passengers still want smoking sections on the long flights. "It's our position it is better to have a smoking section in the back of the plane to accommodate passengers," says Brennan Dawson, a spokesperson for the Tobacco Institute in Washington. However, Newman told the ICAO delegates that the smoking ban on domestic flights "has caused no significant public outcry." He says letters to the Department of Transportation indicate public support for extending the ban to international flights.