Twenty-five years after a federal law passed banning smoking on all domestic flights, many of us don’t even notice the lit “No Smoking” sign above our airplane seats. Until that landmark public health legislation took effect on February 25, 1990, flight attendants were subjected to deadly secondhand smoke during every flight and travelers who sat in “non-smoking” sections couldn’t escape the fumes.
As a member of the American Cancer Society National Board of Directors 25 years ago, I agreed it was imperative for the Society to utilize its scientific expertise and passionate volunteer base to counteract the tobacco industry and protect non-smokers and flight attendants from the hazardous effects of secondhand smoke on every flight. We had the evidence to prove that smoke-free laws saved lives, so we decided to take the issue to Capitol Hill. The Society and its public health partners had champions in Senators Dick Durbin (D-IL) and Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ), whose unwavering support was instrumental in passing the legislation. (You can hear more about Senator Durbin’s involvement in this video.)
The smoke-free airplanes legislation sparked a nationwide movement in support of smoke-free workplaces. In 2002, Delaware became the first state to enact a comprehensive smoke-free law covering all workplaces, including bars and restaurants. Since then, 23 other states and the District of Columbia have followed suit, and today nearly half of the U.S. population is protected by a comprehensive smoke-free law.
The Society’s advocacy affiliate, the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network (ACS CAN), believes that the momentum that began 25 years ago cannot stall, especially with a tobacco industry that continues to use egregious tactics to addict kids to its deadly products. There are still 26 states lacking comprehensive smoke-free laws, 58 million Americans exposed to secondhand smoke and minority and low-income populations disproportionately subjected to the deadly impact of tobacco. It’s hard to imagine that cigarettes were ever allowed on flights, and smoking in other workplaces, including restaurants and bars should become relegated to history books as well.
Tobacco will claim the lives of nearly half a million Americans this year. Evidence shows that enacting strong smoke-free laws that cover all workplaces, increasing tobacco excise taxes on a regular basis and fully funding tobacco prevention and cessation programs help people quit using tobacco and keep kids from ever starting. ACS CAN is working to make strong tobacco control laws a priority with elected officials at every level. From passing local smoke-free ordinances, to increasing the meager $1.01 federal cigarette tax, to funding tobacco education and cessation programs, to supporting strong federal regulation over the tobacco industry, ACS CAN is strengthening public policies in ways that help to change cultural views of tobacco use and will lead to a smoke-free, tobacco-free generation.
Dr. Seffrin is the chief executive officer f the American Cancer Society and its advocacy affiliate the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network.