A National Change of Heart

A DECADE ago, most Americans probably could not imagine a future in which smoking would be banned on all domestic flights and restricted in many restaurants, hotel rooms, and rental cars. So deeply ingrained was the perceived right of smokers to light up anytime, anywhere that non-smokers could only dream of a day when the balance of power would shift to them. Now it has.

The shift will be more complete if Congress enacts the Smoke-Free Environment Act, which would ban smoking in all nonresidential buildings, although it would permit building owners to create special smoking rooms. Supporters estimate that the measure would save from 38,000 to 108,000 lives and tens of billions of dollars each year.

The tobacco industry argues that the bill constitutes ``massive intervention'' in the lives of the one-quarter of adult Americans who smoke. Yet so extraordinary has been the shift in public attitudes that Rep. Henry Waxman (D) of California called last week's House subcommittee hearing on the bill ``a turning point,'' adding, ``The national mood has changed.''

This reversal must be acknowledged, particularly for what it says about the possibilities for change. It often is tempting to accept the inevitability of the worst ``trends'' getting worse. Yet in the presence of a clearly perceived urgency, human nature can change, one heart at a time. This is the lesson of the '90s that hovers in the air where stale clouds of smoke used to hang.

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