Smoking Ban on Planes: Nov. 21, 1989

After a 25-year battle, smoking is essentially banned on all airline flights beginning and ending in the U.S. George H.W. Bush signs legislation that make it through Congress despite fierce resistance by legislators from tobacco states.

Technically, the new law forbids smoking on any domestic flight lasting less than six hours in length--which means only 28 out of 16,000 flights are exempted, mainly non-stops to Hawaii. It replaces a previous law banning smoking on U.S. flights under two hours.

It's seen as a big victory for health advocates and flight attendants, who had long complained about all the second-hand smoke they had to breathe in. A turning point in the debate, in fact, had been a National Academy of Sciences report in 1986 which had found that flight attendants typically were exposed to the same level of second-hand smoke as someone married to a person who smoked a pack a day.

Still, it had been an uphill battle.  As far back as 1973 the Civil Aeronautics Board had begun addressing the matter by requiring airlines to create separate smoking and non-smoking sections. But only the tobacco companies saw that as much of a solution.  As one critic of the policy put it: "A smoking section on an airplane is like having a peeing section in a swimming pool."

Even with more and more scientific evidence showing harmful health effects of an airplane cabin full of smoke, the political debate came down to the rights of smokers versus non-smokers. When his attempts to block the legislation through a filibuster failed, Senator Jesse Helms, from the big tobacco state of North Carolina, complained: "People who smoke cigarettes have a right, too. But they are going to have no choice."

By the mid-1990s, airlines began adopting no-smoking policies that applied worldwide, beginning with Delta in 1995, and followed two years later by TWA, United and American Airlines.  Air France, British Air and Virgin Atlantic followed suit in 1998.  When, in 2000, President Bill Clinton signed a law officially prohibiting smoking on every flight into and out of the U.S., it was a mere formality.

More recently, companies selling electronic cigarettes, which emit no smoke, began promoting them as devices that can be smoked anywhere--including on planes. And technically, they were right--the existing law doesn't actually prohibit them.  But none of major airlines is allowing e-cigarettes to slip through that loophole.  For now, their position is that faux cigarettes are no more welcome on their planes than the real thing.