THE movement of American society away from tobacco has been gradual. It may take some specific reminder - catching an old Hollywood movie on television, for instance, and noticing how odd it looks for everyone to be lighting up all the time - to make us conscious of the trend. But some recent developments have brought the smoking issue onto the front pages. Not only is Congress banning smoking aboard most shorter domestic airline flights, but Northwest Airlines is planning to ban the weed from all its domestic flights. RJR Nabisco, the major food-and-tobacco conglomerate and the nation's fourth-largest advertiser - has pulled its advertising business from Saatchi & Saatchi, the ad agency that did the spots promoting Northwest's new smoke-free policy.
And New York City is launching a new ordinance restricting smoking in a variety of public places, including workplaces and restaurants.
It should be no great surprise to anyone who knows this newspaper that we are quietly cheering on the trend toward clearer air. With smaller proportions of adults smoking, the burden is less on the nonsmoker to ask the smoker to refrain. It is becoming acceptable to ask smokers to hold off lighting up, or confine their indulgence to the outdoors.
In the Northwest ad that got Saatchi & Saatchi into trouble, a planeful of passengers - except for a single smoker - bursts into applause when an announcement of the no-smoking policy is made. And why not, really? People make it through a two-hour movie without lighting up.
That point made, we take heart in the indications of flexibility we hear, even from nonsmokers looking forward to smoke-free workplaces. The ``individual liberty'' aspect of the debate to smoke or not to smoke has surely been distorted by the presence of a tobacco industry that doesn't want to see its product restricted any further than it has been already. But courtesy and due process should be part of clearing the air.
Laws - whether state statutes or whatever - are most effective when they represent a consensus not only of legislators but of the people to whom they apply. The statutes against homicide, for instance, are enforced by police and the courts, but they derive their basic authority from a broad consensus on the sacredness of human life.
The new restrictions on smoking should be seen as an expression of a shifting public consensus - away from ``Why speak up?'' to ``Why do we have to put up with this?''