Smoking on Airlines

Decades removed from doctor-sponsored cigarette ads and the rise and fall of the Marlboro Man, the retail casino industry is the last in the U.S. still grappling with indoor smoking. As former regulator Richard Schuetz (l.) writes, the last time we had this song and dance was when airlines phased out the practice some 30 years ago.

Smoking on Airlines

“Our flight attendant fight was a long and difficult road that resulted in many sicknesses, diseases, deaths, and disabilities for our flight attendants.”

– Patty Young, a former “stewardess” who was a pioneer in working to eliminate smoking on airlines.

It was in 1990, and I had a flight from Las Vegas to New Orleans, flying on a redeye. As I checked in at the counter, the ticketing agent asked if I wanted to sit in the smoking or nonsmoking section of the plane. I told her I wanted to sit in the smoking section. She also noted that this was the last flight that would allow smoking by this airline, for my flight left at 11:58 pm, and this airline’s non-smoking policy became effective on flights that were scheduled to depart after midnight.

I mentioned that I would be able to tell my grandkids that I flew on one of the last smoking flights in the U.S., and the ticketing agent told me that I would not be able to tell my grandkids anything if I kept smoking.

Smoking kills and damages people’s health; that science is well-established. Too much secondhand smoke kills and damages people’s health. That, too, has become well-established science.

The first well-known personality generally associated with a desire to eliminate smoking on airlines was consumer advocate Ralph Nader, and his efforts became quite public in 1969. It took until 1990 for smoking to be basically banned on all domestic flights in the U.S.

One sad aspect of this long delay is that people died and suffered numerous health consequences from working in an environment that was not safe. And many people lied about the dangers and consequences and/or ignored them.

The battle to protect the health of passengers and airline employees was one of the earlier campaigns to eliminate indoor smoking and stop the damage to people from secondhand smoke. The danger of smoking on airlines was recognized as far back as the 1960s, and we now have the advantage of a great deal of recorded history and research to rely upon to understand better why this process took so long.

There is a wonderful history of smoking on airlines to be found in Smithsonian Magazine, authored by Rebecca Maksel, from the November 17, 2011, edition. It discusses the chronology of smoking on planes and how it evolved from the airlines providing free cigarettes to passengers to the complete ban on smoking on airlines. It is an interesting short read.

Another interesting read that discusses the length of time it took for the U.S. to finally not allow smoking on airlines is by Peggy Ann Lopipero and Lisa Bero, entitled “Tobacco Interests or the Public Interest: 20 Years of Industry Strategies to Undermine Airline Smoking Restrictions,” published in the August 2006 Tobacco Control Journal.

A seminal moment in the airline smoking battle occurred in 1994 when Professor Stanton Glantz of the University of California at San Francisco (UCSF) received a box of documents that detailed the strategy of a tobacco company to avoid or delay controls on airlines and other smoking experiences.

Professor Glantz taught in the School of Medicine at UCSF and was a noted anti-smoking activist, which would suggest why he was the recipient of the leaked materials. These materials provided the foundation of a book entitled The Cigarette Papers, authored by Professor Glantz and others and published in 1998. This book chronicled the high level of deceit that took place by those profiting from tobacco sales. The most damaging aspect was that the industry’s own documents proved that it knew of the dangers of smoking and set out to downplay this reality.

Beyond leaked information, a great deal of material about the unethical and deceitful behavior of the tobacco industry, its lobbyists, researchers, and marketers surfaced through the many lawsuits brought against the tobacco industry. This pressure resulted in a large consolidation between the tobacco companies and the majority of US states, known as the Tobacco Master Settlement Agreement. To this day, this remains the largest civil legal settlement in U.S. history, totaling well in excess of $250 billion dollars.

The trail of deceit is widespread regarding the desire of the tobacco industry to keep people smoking on planes. It was suggested that the ventilation systems on planes removed the risk of secondhand smoke. Others argued that if the plane could have a smoking section and a non-smoking section, the non-smoking flyers would be safe. Both the enhanced ventilation systems and separate sections have long been proven to be hogwash—albeit the casino industry has made a strong effort to recycle them, no pun intended.

Big Tobacco and its friends paid to have letters written, even providing the copy. Entities paid by Big Tobacco involved themselves in petition drives that lacked integrity. Firms in the tobacco business formed a research entity whose purpose was to introduce doubt about the findings of the scientific community. When an airline announced it was going smoke-free, a tobacco company called its reservation office en masse so as to disrupt its ability to take reservations and destroy it as a business—an early version of today’s denial of service attack.

The tobacco companies also utilized advertising that suggested smoking was safe and healthy by using well-known athletes and suggesting their brands were favored by doctors—all while knowing full well that the use of cigarettes was dangerous.

A Smokers’ Rights Alliance was developed to lobby for people who did not want to have their smoking limited. While appearing to be a grassroots effort, it was later discovered to be funded by a tobacco company. A National Smokers Alliance was also another large astroturfing effort and a variety of similar organizations were founded with money and organization from the tobacco industry.

And on and on it went, a long-term strategic effort by Big Tobacco and its agents to deceive and mislead the public about something that was damaging to their health—all to enhance tobacco profits.

In other studies that have evaluated the reality of secondhand smoke, it was noted that the socioeconomic groups generally subjected to secondhand smoke are lower-income groups, generally composed of women and people of color. I guess if you are going to discount lives, these are the easier groups in that they lack power and influence.

The simple reality of the matter was that the tobacco industry, the airlines and their associated entities knew smoking and secondhand smoke were health hazards, yet they fought to allow smoking that caused death, disability and disease to their customers and employees. And they deployed in this fight a strategy of deceit and dishonesty for a great many years.

I entered the gaming industry in 1971, and I often find myself talking and working with people who were not alive when I started in the industry. When I bring up something like smoking on airlines, they look at me with disbelief—with most suggesting that allowing smoking on an airline was crazy. Yet these same people can walk through a casino and see a dealer with several customers seated facing him or her, blowing smoke toward that person who is trying to work, and think nothing of it.

This is also crazy.

Cigarette smoke causes cancer, lung disease, heart attacks and premature death. Cigarette smoke causes emphysema, acute myeloid leukemia, and cancer of the mouth, esophagus, larynx, lungs, stomach, kidney, bladder and pancreas. Cigarette smoke reduces fertility, results in low birth weights and cancer of the cervix. And secondhand smoke alone kills 38,000 people a year in the US.

It is important to remember and appreciate this reality and address it with honesty.

Articles by Author: Richard Schuetz

Richard Schuetz started dealing blackjack for Bill Harrah 47 years ago, and has traveled the world as a casino executive, educator and regulator. He is sincerely appreciative of the help he received from his friends and colleagues throughout the gaming world in developing this article, understanding that any and all errors are his own.