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One of the more bizarre accounts of the tobacco industry’s influence on the Bush administration in the USA emerged recently from Michael Moore, film maker, journalist, and best selling author of the satirical and less than flattering book about his country, Stupid white men. Moore revealed that during a nationwide book promotion tour, he had asked his audiences if they knew the answer to a question that was increasingly bothering him. As he flew from city to city, he repeatedly passed through airport security checks. At each one, he dutifully emptied his pockets of anything that might be considered a potential security threat, in the climate of greatly increased security awareness following the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001.
Penknives, nail files, knitting needles, even toenail clippers were among the long list of items prohibited in hand baggage, yet Moore noticed that cigarette lighters and matches were not—even after a British passenger, on 22 December that same year, unsuccessfully tried to set fire to his shoes with a lighter, shoes whose heels were packed with explosives, police said later. Did anyone know, Moore asked his audiences, why on earth cigarette lighters, one of which had already been used in an attempted suicide bomb attack high over the Atlantic, were missing from such a comprehensive security list, especially since smoking was now prohibited on all flights?
Moore finally got his answer at an event in a bookshop in Arlington, Virginia, just a few miles from the Pentagon, target of one of the hijacked aircraft in the 11 September attacks. As Moore signed copies of his book after giving his talk, a young man approached him, introduced himself, and said in a lowered voice that he could answer the question, as he worked on Capitol Hill, centre of the federal government administration in Washington DC. Butane lighters were on the original list prepared by the Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) and sent to the White House for approval, he said, but the tobacco industry successfully lobbied the Bush administration to have lighters and matches removed from the banned list.
Perhaps the industry’s rationale was not just based on concern for their customers, many of whom would want to smoke again as soon as possible after a flight, preferably without having to buy another lighter. They may also have feared the association of smoking paraphernalia with potential instruments of death, another inch lost on the slippery slope of social acceptability. Even more interesting, maybe it had occurred to them that if smokers did not immediately light up on arrival, some might get all the way to their destinations without smoking at all—and then what? They might even seize the opportunity to give up for good.
Michael Moore has filed a demand under the Freedom of Information Act, asking the FAA to provide him with all relevant documentation about the decisions that were made to allow butane lighters and matches on board passenger aircraft. Don’t hold your breath waiting for a full and frank response, Mr Moore.