Swept up in the ashtray of history

The moment was very turn-of-the-millennium. I wanted to plug a cell phone into the cigarette lighter of my 1999 Honda Odyssey. Only there wasn't one.

Feeling sheepish, both that I actually drive a minivan and that I carry a cell phone, I hunted in the manual under "cigarette lighter," "power source," "electrical supply." Nothing. I was about to call the dealer, when I noticed a small covered outlet near the floor.

Score another victory for changing American attitudes toward smoking.

The dashboard cigarette lighter, which first appeared in the 1920s, is becoming scarce. Carmakers from Hyundai to Ford, responding to customer surveys, are axing the ashtray in favor of cupholders and storage.

Not being a smoker, the absence of lighters in '90s vehicles had escaped me. Carmakers instead furnish "accessory power sockets" (Honda lingo) and charge for a lighter package.

Steadily, through lawsuits and public-health campaigns, the allure of smoking has worn thin. The image of a suave driver, one hand on the wheel, the other taking a drag on his Lucky Strike, doesn't play any longer.

Public disgust with the practice, which has resulted in smoke-free offices and restaurants, now makes it OK to ostracize people who puff, even in their own cars.

Of course, cynics will say the whole thing is a ploy by car companies to make us buy more gadgets. After all, if the outlet exists, why not plug something in?

*Write the Homefront, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115 or e-mail us at home@csps.com

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