Smokefree Skies at 31

February 25, 2021, marks the 31-year anniversary of this important public health achievement made possible by a broad coalition of health groups, legislative champions Senator Lautenberg and Senator Durbin (then Rep. Durbin), and tenacious flight attendants who were willing to speak up publicly for their right to breathe. See Senator Durbin’s remarks on the 25th anniversary.

Flight attendants and other airplane crew members were regularly subjected to toxic secondhand smoke. Hear what veteran flight attendants have to say about working on smoke-filled flights then and their smokefree workplaces now. Watch Patty Young, one of the early voices in the fight, describe what it was like to work in a smoke-filled airplane.

“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

Patty’s impassioned speech about her right to smokefree air still applies for many classes of workers in hospitality workplaces that are left behind. We fought for years in an uphill battle to protect the health of flight attendants and passengers, and today we remain committed to smokefree advocacy, to close the gaps in smokefree protections for musicians, casino workers, bar and hospitality staff who still work in smoke-filled environments. While we have much to celebrate, there is still more work ahead of us.

We want to close the gaps in smokefree protections for ALL workers!

Why Aren’t All Workers Protected?

The tobacco industry works tirelessly to prevent state and local smokefree protections. Their arguments and strategies remain the same. Big Tobacco hasn’t gone away.

The tobacco industry maintains that smoking sections inside a building like a casino, or smoking rooms in a hotel, are a way to control smoke. We know that smoking sections do not protect people from the health hazards of secondhand smoke. Smoke drifts and ventilation doesn’t remove toxins. There is no HVAC system that can remove the cancer causing elements in secondhand smoke or vapor from an e-cigarette.

Everyone has to breathe at work! We all need clean indoor air to be healthy.

Do you remember what it was like to travel on an airplane filled with cigarette smoke? Let us know about your experiences.

And they answered! Here are some remembrances and notes from former flight attendants and passengers:

For those non-smoking flight attendants who flew before the smoking ban, the cabin conditions were horrific. Indelibly stamped in our minds are memories of smoke so thick that after the No Smoking sign went off you could not see from the aft jump seat to the front of the cabin, teeth and hair discolored by the smoke and the pungent smell of tobacco smoke in your uniform. Beyond the images, there were the all too frequent respiratory infections, burning eyes, and down line health consequences. Since the ban, we have gotten very used to clean air in those same cabins. What an enormous difference it makes. We can never take it for granted. All of us, including young people today who may have never experienced this situation, must guard this right to clean air to whatever future challenges might come up. We must never have this situation again. ~ Lani, retired flight attendant

I have been a flight attendant with American Airlines for 30 years. I joined ANR in the fight against big tobacco. I spent a week in Washington D.C. with ANR and an amazing group of fellow flight attendants (notably Patty Young) meeting with law-makers and submitting testimony on the effects of 2ndhand smoke on airline personnel. It seemed like an uphill battle, but we triumphed. It will always be one of the most rewarding experiences of my life. Thank you, ANR, for supporting us on our fight to work in a smokefree environment. ~ Lori

I remember sitting one row behind the smoking session on a flight to Paris and coming off that plane at 8am smelling like I had been to Studio 54 all night!  ~ Nancy

I had a similar experience on my first trip to Europe in early 80’s. I was flying from L.A. to Frankfurt and I was in an aisle seat in the row in front of the smoking section. Dude behind me lit up as soon as the No Smoking light went off and kept smoking the entire, loooooong flight. I kept getting up and standing in the galley and the flight attendants kept telling me to go back to my seat. When I remarked about the smoke, they were sympathetic and mentioned they did not like it either, but there was nothing they could do. So grateful those days are over!  ~ Cynthia

Ironically, when the CAB issued their first rules governing smoking and nonsmoking sections on airplanes back in the early 70’s, the last 4 or 5 rows were reserved for nonsmokers and the rest of the plane for smokers. If you got there too late to get a nonsmoking seat, you had to sit with the smokers. Within a few short years, as the popularity of nonsmoking seating increased (even among smokers), they revised the rules and required the airlines to increase the nonsmoking section to accommodate any passenger requesting such a seat. Soon, the last 3 or 4 rows were reserved for smokers and the rest of the plane for nonsmokers. ~ Donald

I was one who rode on smoky . My parents were smokers so always had to ride with the smokers too  ~ Arlene

I began my 37 year flying career with American Airlines in 1970. In a sentence, it [working on a smoke-filled plane] was like working in a chimney!  A lovely flight attendant friend with premature gray, almost white hair… least at the beginning of a three day trip would have brown hair by the end of the trip. As if it weren’t bad enough to work in an ashtray, the smoke followed us off the aircraft permeating our uniforms, hair, suitcases….everything.  I soon learned to “disrobe” in my garage and leave all my airline items there.  The planes reeked of smoke…lavs, seats, blankets, pillows.  When the air-conditioners leaked, brown liquid would run down the walls of the aircraft.  And I don’t even want to think about what our lungs looked like.  Today, while the airflow on the aircraft is not ideal, it is better, safer and hopefully healthier. I am grateful that smoking has been, continues to and will ALWAYS be OFF the aircraft.  As more smoke-free environments are mandated, the health of all consumers is potentially improved.  ~ Kate, retired flight attendant

Indeed I do [remember smoky airplanes]…flying to Denmark in the smoking section as my parents both smoked which is certainly why I never did! ~ Mette

I was overjoyed when smoke was banned from planes and eventually even smoking rooms were eliminated from airports. I will be very happy when casinos also ban smoking.  ~Gail

I remember and so does my sister-in-law who flew TWA on the Mideast routes. My mom (a smoker) used to complain about having to sit in the back of the plane. I, on the other hand, remember being stuck in the smoking section when non-smoking was sold out or stuck sitting in the row in front of the smokers. UGH. Thanks ANR!!!! It’s a wonderful thing that people no longer smoke on planes!! ~ Carol

My smoking on airplanes story is traveling in the early 1970’s with a coworker who smoked huge cigars on the old Pacific Southwest Airline (PSA). And sitting in airline club rooms that were smoke filled. Other coworkers and I played a significant part in getting club rooms to be no-smoking, especially in Seattle. ~ Nicola

It truly was a major public health victory. And it paved the way for all manner of smoke-free public accommodations. If smokers can forgo smoking a cigarette for 4 or 5 hours flying coast to coast, surely they can go a few hours not smoking at work, in restaurants, bars, and everywhere else. And ANR was a major reason this was made possible. ~ Donald S.

Oh, I remember. Horrible. I wonder what the p2.5 levels were in a smoking aircraft cabin? It must have been close to that of cars. And the airlines did not go out of business. And smokers did not stop flying. There were fewer cabin fires. The cabin cleaning times and cost had to decrease. Now to get the rest of the country Smokefree. And prevent roll backs.  ~ Joel D

I will be forever grateful to ANR for their comprehensive and generous support over decades to help the flight attendants get smoking off of all flights. I started and led the fight to ban smoking in the summer of 1966 when I became a stewardess. I immediately was told by my many of my non-smoking co-workers that their doctors had told them that they had the lungs of smokers. These statements and the gargantuan amount of tobacco smoke on every flight that we were breathing in made it obvious to me that things were dangerous and suffocating in our workplace and that something had to be done about it. Our flight attendant fight to ban smoking was a long and difficult road that resulted in many sicknesses, diseases, deaths and disabilities for our flight attendants. But on the positive side, our fight also led to the modern day worldwide non-smoking movement. Thank you from the bottom of my heart ANR for being there and knowing what it was that we were suffering from and for going to great lengths for us and the passengers to help make smoke-free flying. With much love and admiration, Patty, Retired Flight Attendant

Towards the end of 2003, my wife and I won a trip to NYC. Had the city not have just passed a law to prohibit toxic tobacco smoke in all public places and workplaces, we would not have gone.  Had the airlines not been smoke-free, we COULD not have gone. Thanks to Patty Young and everyone else that got lethal tobacco smoke off and out of the airlines! Now, we must get this mother of all chemical weapons out of the few airports that still allow it. ~ David