Let's clear the air - aloft

WITH millions of families flying home for the holidays, Congress is on the verge of making those trips a bit safer and healthier. All that's standing in the way is one of the biggest Scrooges on Capitol Hill. In this case, the ``humbug'' comes from the powerful tobacco lobby, which is trying to kill a proposal to ban cigarette smoking on most domestic airline flights. Much to the industry's surprise, both chambers have supported a smoking ban, although in slightly different versions (the House targeted two-hour flights, the Senate 90-minute flights). Events of the weeks ahead, as Congress works to resolve those minor differences, will determine the air quality on airplanes.

Justification for a ban is simple and undeniable: Smoking on airplanes is just not very good for the health and safety of people who don't smoke. In a series of reports last year, the surgeon general found that ``secondhand'' or ``passive'' smoking is clearly linked to respiratory problems. The National Academy of Sciences found that passive smoking is particularly acute in airplanes, because most aircraft ventilation systems recycle the limited and stale cabin air, exposing everyone on board to concentrated levels of toxic pollutants.

This can cause severe problems for passengers with respiratory problems, especially pregnant women, young children, and the elderly. It is also a major workplace issue for the nation's 70,000 flight attendants, whose jobs expose them to smoke levels similar to those of a person living with a pack-a-day smoker, according to the Academy of Sciences.

Safety is also a real concern, as tragically illus-trated by the 1983 fire aboard an Air Canada flight that killed 23 people. While safety board investigators never found a specific cause of the fire, they did determine that it started near a lavatory wastepaper bin and that a lighted cigarette ``cannot be ruled out.'' Air Canada subsequently banned smoking on its flights to New York - a move that has proved both popular and profitable for the airline.

Despite these obvious reasons, the tobacco industry continues to deny that smoking is a problem. But why can smokers willingly abstain for the two hours it takes to watch a movie, yet step on an airplane and claim some constitutional right to light up? If public safety is a good reason to refrain from smoking in a movie theater, why not inside a 250-ton machine flying seven miles aloft?

Given the legendary influence of the tobacco industry on Capitol Hill, the House and Senate endorsements for a smoking ban on airlines are highly significant. For the first time, Congress has moved to restrict the actual use of tobacco, not just its advertising or labeling. For the first time, Congress has endorsed the mounting medical evidence against passive smoking. For once, the tobacco lobby went to the well in Congress and came up dry.

This exposes the growing scientific and political weakness of the tobaccoo industry's knee-jerk defense of polluted air. It also highlights how Congress is changing: With the singular exception of North Carolina, every tobacco-growing, Southern-state delegation in the House of Representatives contributed at least one vote in favor of the smoking ban.

This also reflects the growing national movement on behalf of public health. This summer, California enacted its own smoking ban on all flights within that state; Air Canada extended a trial smoking ban on its New York flights, despite heavy opposition from tobacco companies; new surveys show overwhelming passenger support for a smoking ban on airlines; the number of Americans who smoke was reported to have reached the lowest level (27 percent) ever recorded; and a new study by the Center for Disease Control blamed nearly 16 percent of all deaths in the United States on cigarette smoking, from fire or disease.

Nevertheless, the tobacco lobby remains a powerful force in Washington, especially in those proverbial ``smoke-filled rooms'' where this issue will ultimately be settled. If the nonsmoking majority of the American flying public yearns to breathe free, the next few weeks would be a good time to send a Christmas card to Congress on behalf of clean air in airplanes.

Rep. Richard J. Durbin (D) of Illinois wrote the smoking-ban amendment first passed by the House in July.

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