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UK: familiar smell at the airport
  1. David Simpson
  1. d.simpson{at}

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    Travellers passing though London’s two largest airports, Heathrow and Gatwick, in recent months have noticed two things: special smoking booths, open-topped and see-though, equipped with banks of expensive-looking ventilation and filtration units; and—unsurprisingly—an all-pervasive, unpleasant smell of tobacco smoke. What they have witnessed is the outcome of a tobacco industry project going back many years, a hi-tech development within the “accommodation” strategy.

    Companies that are bitter competitors in the marketplace have long worked in harmony to try to get ventilation equipment manufacturers to do the impossible. The idea was a machine so effective that it would avoid what they most fear: a total ban in public places, with sales-killing results and serious damage to the already battered social acceptability of smoking.

    Responding to a disgruntled traveller annoyed by the smell in a lounge housing such a booth, a Heathrow employee described it in glowing terms. It is made by a company called Tornex, and creates “an artificial tornado to trap the smoke in its processing unit, in which the air is then cleaned before being released back into the environment”. As if quoting from an industry wish-list, she went on to say that with this new concept, there was no need to have an enclosed smoking area. “The technology does not remove the smell of smoke 100%, but does remove the bad smoke particulates that can be harmful and unpleasant to non-smokers,” she trilled. The traveller replied that as long as he smelt tobacco smoke in a non-smoking section, which she had admitted was still there, then there was tobacco smoke, and poisons. Others have since sent the Heathrow apologist important information that the ventilation and tobacco industries must have forgotten to mention.

    Basic searches show Tornex featuring in internal tobacco documents of both Philip Morris and British American Tobacco as far back as the 1990s. But this particular industry plan to hold on to public smoking has not fooled all British airport operators: Birmingham decided on a total ban instead. Even Heathrow knows what is coming: while asserting that the Tornex system was installed in good faith, it is clearly aware of impending legislation to bring England alongside Ireland and Scotland with a total workplace ban, and changes to its smoking arrangements are “seriously being considered”. Heathrow may have wasted a shed-load of money going down the tobacco industry runway, but it had better do more than consider a total ban: it will soon be imposed by law.