In a dramatic setback for the tobacco industry, Senate and House negotiators agreed Monday night to ban smoking on all airline flights within the continental United States and on flights of six hours or less to or from Hawaii, Alaska, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands.
"The Marlboro Man has just lost all of the sky for his territory," said Ahron Leichtman, an enthusiastic anti-smoking lobbyist. "It's a big victory."
The ban, part of an $11.9-billion transportation appropriations bill, would take effect 90 days after the measure becomes law. Currently, cigarette smoking is forbidden on domestic flights of two hours or less--about 80% of domestic flights affecting two-thirds of all domestic passengers.
The new ban would apply to 99% of domestic flights and affect nearly all domestic passengers.
Sen. Frank R. Lautenberg (D-N.J.), chief Senate sponsor of the smoking ban, called it "a milestone."
A spokesman for the Tobacco Institute, which represents U.S. tobacco companies, noted that the agreement would permit smoking on several non-stop flights outside the continental United States. "It's not what we would have liked, but it's better than a total ban," he said.
Under congressional procedures, the agreement worked out in conference committee will go back to the House and Senate for final approval before it is sent to the White House for President Bush's signature. Both chambers are expected to go along with the agreement.
The effort to reduce health hazards to airline passengers began with a National Academy of Science recommendation for a ban in 1986.
Outlines of the compromise were worked out in a Senate committee room prominently posted with "No Smoking" signs. At one point, negotiations almost broke down over what once was a politically untouchable issue.
The Senate had approved a total ban on smoking on all domestic flights within the 50 states but the House voted merely to make permanent the temporary ban on flights of two hours or less.
When the House delegation took a poll on whether to go along with the Senate position, the vote was 6 to 4 against the total ban. Lautenberg appeared ready to break off the conference without an agreement rather than yield his position.
But Rep. Martin Olav Sabo (D-Minn.), chewing on an unlit cigar, managed to work out the compromise with the aid of Rep. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.), convincing five of the six dissenters to go along with the version exempting a handful of flights. Only Rep. Jamie L. Whitten (D-Miss.), chairman of the Appropriations Committee, balked.
While Lautenberg at first refused to bend from the Senate-approved total ban, he and other senators eventually supported the plan outlined by Durbin.
Rep. William H. Gray III (D-Pa.), the Democratic whip, at first refused to go along with the Senate position but accepted the compromise even though he said it went much further than he would prefer.
"I'm not a smoker," Gray added. "I stopped about five years ago--cold turkey. But I do believe in supporting the House position."
Gray tried but failed to get Senate conferees' approval for a ban on smoking only during the first several hours of domestic flights but the proposal ran into a stone wall of opposition.
"It would be impossible to administer and would lead to panic smoking toward the end of a flight," Durbin protested.
At that point, the conference appeared to be deadlocked.
Lautenberg and the chairman of the House conferees, Rep. William Lehman (D-Fla.) then put their heads together, literally, over the long, narrow table that divided them.
Others went to work with Sabo's suggestion to allow smoking only on "very, very long flights" and institute a total ban inside the 48 contiguous states.
After a brief recess, Lautenberg reconvened the meeting and announced: "We've had a chance to reflect on our position. Reflection always helps to cool ardor."
Durbin outlined the compromise and Sen. Alfonse M. D'Amato (R-N.Y.) made sure it applied to flights going to and from Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands as well as Alaska and Hawaii.
Within minutes, the compromise was set. Gray said that he would support the agreement on the House floor despite his earlier reservations.
Lautenberg, who at first said that he did not know how to compromise on the public's health, ended the conference by noting that airlines could impose an even broader smoking ban voluntarily, without the pressure of federal law.
But he made no bones about his objections to airline smoking, saying: "It's like smoking in a telephone booth--repulsive."