US Airlines Prepare For Smoking Ban

Starting Sunday, no smoking allowed on most US flights

When salesman Don Nelson checked in for his Continental Airlines flight to Houston, he asked for a smoking seat. ``You better enjoy it while you can,'' the gate agent told Mr. Nelson on Tuesday. Starting Sunday, Nelson and millions of other smokers will no longer have the choice of seats. With the exception of some long flights, the ``no smoking'' sign will stay lit on almost all domestic flights. This will be a change from the current law, which bans smoking on flights of two hours or less.

In preparation for the smoke-free flights, airlines are warning passengers. ``The agents are telling people there is no smoking. They aren't even giving the option of smoking or no-smoking seats on domestic flights,'' says Mary O'Neill, a spokeswoman for American Airlines Inc. For almost a month, United Airlines says it has been advising passengers of the change.

Some airlines are making announcements during the flight. Trans World Airlines is telling passengers smoking will not be permitted after Sunday ``due to federal regulation.'' The federal rule, which was signed into law by President Bush on Nov. 21, explicitly bans smoking on flights of six hours or less. Only long flights to Hawaii and Alaska will allow smoking. The ban does not affect international travel.

A worldwide smoking ban might still be a long way off. Last week, the US Department of Transportation (DOT) released a report on contaminants in airliner cabins. The study of 92 flights found little air quality difference between smoking and nonsmoking sections. Rows adjacent to the smoking section had the highest airborne nicotine content.

The study did conclude, however, that the risk of dying from lung cancer was over 12 times greater for crew members than for business or casual passengers. The six-hour smoking ban would reduce the risk by 98 percent, according to the DOT study.

Flight attendants relieved

Flight crews are happy over the smoking restrictions. At the airport here, three Continental Airlines flight attendants recount how they try to avoid the smoking section. ``On long flights I flee to the front of the airplane,'' says Shaun, who finds his health problems intensify in the smoke.

Nonsmoking passengers are grateful for the break as well. Frances Rudolph, a Boston woman traveling to West Palm Beach with her young daughter, calls the move ``great'' and suggests it should be expanded to all public buildings.

Even some smokers don't seem upset over the restrictions. Mr. Nelson, the salesman, travels more than 135,000 miles a year. But he says, ``It's not fair to force other people to suffer.'' Another smoker, John Mullin of Lansing, Mich., notices a lot more children are flying these days. ``The secondhand smoke is not good for them,'' he says.

Jim Lyon, an Albuquerque, N.M., postal supervisor, says he tries to limit himself to two cigarettes per flight. Without any smoking allowed, he says, ``I just won't do it.''

Antismoking advocates started cranking up their own publicity efforts early this week. In Washington, the co-sponsors of the ban, Rep. Richard Durbin (D) of Illinois and Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D) of New Jersey held a press conference with antismoking advocates. In a phone interview, Representative Durbin says the shift represents more than just bringing a few thousand flights under the law.

``It is the beginning of a new era of sensible smoking regulation in America,'' Durbin says.

Kennedy's education program

Indeed, even as the airlines were warning passengers about snuffing out cigarettes, Sen. Edward Kennedy was beginning hearings on tobacco advertising aimed at young people. The young are ``unaware of the true nature of the risk,'' said Senator Kennedy in a statement on Tuesday.

Kennedy wants to begin a federal education program about the health effects of smoking. Health Secretary Louis Sullivan says, however, he would prefer a voluntary program with advertising agencies providing free ads and television stations donating air time.

The Kennedy hearings coincide with recent attempts by R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company to target advertising to specific groups. Only three weeks ago, Reynolds was forced to cancel test marketing plans for Uptown, a cigarette aimed at blacks. Now Reynolds is under attack for its plans for Dakota, a cigarette it hopes will compete with Marlboro, which is produced by Philip Morris.

One marketing plan called for targeting Dakota to ``virile females,'' defined as white 18- to 24-year-old high school graduates. Reynolds says it never adopted that marketing plan and that Dakota is aimed at both sexes.

The controversy over cigarette advertising is likely to accelerate this year. Durbin has introduced legislation similar to Kennedy's bill. He says his aim is to halt the ``insidious'' recruitment of children as smokers. Over 50 percent of all smokers begin before the age of 16. ``We need to make it our national policy to make our schools smoke-free and to end vending machine sales,'' Durbin says.

With restrictions on smoking in place on airlines, Durbin also wants to make some changes on Amtrak. He would like all smoking cars to be at the end of the train so nonsmokers don't have to walk through them. And he wants Amtrak to guarantee a seat to all nonsmokers.

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