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Clearing the airways: advocacy and regulation for smoke-free airlines
  1. A L Holm,
  2. R M Davis
  1. Center for Health Promotion and Disease Prevention, Henry Ford Health System, Detroit, Michigan, USA
  1. Correspondence to:
 A L Holm
 MPH, Center for Health Promotion and Disease Prevention, Henry Ford Health System, One Ford Place, 5C, Detroit, MI 48202-3450, USA;


Objective: To examine the advocacy and regulatory history surrounding bans on smoking in commercial airliners.

Methods: Review of historical documents, popular press articles, and other sources to trace the timeline of events leading up to the US ban on smoking in airliners and subsequent efforts by airlines and other nations.

Results: In early years, efforts by flight attendants and health advocates to make commercial airliners smoke-free were not productive. Advocacy efforts between 1969 and 1984 resulted in maintenance of the status quo, with modest exceptions (creation of smoking and non-smoking sections of aircraft, and a ban on cigar and pipe smoking). Several breakthrough events in the mid 1980s, however, led to an abrupt turnaround in regulatory efforts. The first watershed event was the publication in 1986 of the National Academy of Science’s report on the airliner cabin environment, which recommended banning smoking on all commercial flights. Subsequently, following concerted lobbying efforts by health advocates, Congress passed legislation banning smoking on US domestic flights of less than two hours, which became effective in 1988. The law was made permanent and extended to flights of less than six hours in 1990. This landmark legislation propelled the adoption of similar rules internationally, both by airlines and their industry’s governing bodies. Though the tobacco industry succeeded in stalling efforts to create smoke-free airways, it was ultimately unable to muster sufficient grassroots support or scientific evidence to convince the general public or policymakers that smoking should continue to be allowed on airlines.

Conclusions: The movement to ban smoking in aircraft represents a case study in effective advocacy for smoke-free workplaces. Health advocates, with crucial assistance from flight attendants, used an incremental advocacy process to push for smoking and non-smoking sections on US commercial flights, then for smoking bans on short domestic flights, and finally for completely smoke-free domestic and international flights. Through the course of the battle, advocates from all quarters of tobacco control presented a unified message, exhibited remarkable focus on an attainable goal, and effectively leveraged their relationships with champions in both government and the private sector.

  • secondhand smoke
  • airlines
  • flight attendant
  • public policy
  • regulation
  • AMA, American Medical Association
  • ATA, Air Transport Association
  • ASH, Action on Smoking and Health
  • CAB, Civil Aeronautics Board
  • FAA, Federal Aviation Administration
  • GASP, Group Against Smoking Pollution
  • ICAO, International Civil Aviation Organization
  • NAS, National Academy of Science
  • NCI, National Cancer Institute
  • NRC, National Research Council

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