Changing Altitudes: The Impact of the Tobacco Industry on the Prohibition of In-Flight Smoking in the US 

Written by Kat Jivkova

Before the 1980s, smoking on any commercial aircraft was permitted. In 1969, exposure to tobacco smoke had been ruled by the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) as unlikely to be “injurious to the health of non-smokers”, and no action was taken for its restriction. In the 1970s, however, some US-carriers created separate smoking sections under the provision of the Civil Aeronautics Board (CAB), United Airlines being the first to do so in 1971. Restrictions on passenger-smokers initially proved to be unpopular, with the tobacco industry accusing the CAB of marginalising its clientele. It was only after the influx of research centred around the effects of second-hand smoke (SHS) that the question of in-flight smoking was seriously considered by airline companies.  

A 1986 report issued by the US Surgeon General titled “The health consequences of involuntary smoking” provided evidence to suggest that SHS exposure increased risk of lung cancer by 20-30 per cent, and cardiovascular disease by 30 per cent. The report also argued that the separation of smokers and non-smokers on flights “cannot eliminate non-smoker exposure to environmental tobacco smoke [ETS]”. One year later, the National Research Council’s Committee on Airline Cabin Air Quality published similar findings, pushing for the prohibition of in-flight smoking to reduce involuntary exposure to ETS. In spite of this, smoking continued to be permitted on flights in the US until 1988, and several non-US airlines did not adopt this law until the late 1990s. Given the hard evidence regarding the dangers of SHS exposure, why did it take so long for smoking to be banned on planes? I briefly argue that the tobacco industry’s “counterattack” against SHS-based regulatory policies delayed the prohibition of in-flight smoking. 

At the forefront of the pro-tobacco campaign was Philip Morris (PM), a company which, ironically enough, has re-marketed itself on delivering smoke-free products in the present. Philip Morris in the 1980s was an entirely different story. In 1987, the company launched its own scientific research into in-flight air quality (IFAQ) in order to refute “scientific and popular opinion that ETC is harmful to health”. The following year, PM conducted a study on cabin air quality on the Scandinavian Airlines SAS to “counterbalance” passengers who felt it necessary “to impose their preference of no smoking on all other passengers”. However, the results of the study were unfavourable to PM, so they redacted all conclusions that suggested SHS was harmful to non-smokers. These conclusions can be summarised as the following: (1) the concentration of nicotine in the non-smoking zones of planes was fairly high; and (2) levels of respirable dust and carbon monoxide did not differ by much between smoking and non-smoking zones. Instead, the highly edited study declared that “the levels of measured ETS-components in [the non-smoking section] is lower than in the smoking sections.” By sponsoring IFAQ research, such as this SAS study, and manipulating their findings, PM hoped to delay restrictions on in-flight smoking.  

Notably, PM’s campaign extended to other public spaces, including alternative public transportations and the workplace, in response to growing concerns about the association between ETS and poor indoor air quality. Similarly with airlines, their funding of research in these indoor spaces was mediated through the Centre for Indoor Air Research (CIAR), founded in 1988 – this organisation was directly controlled by the tobacco industry, although it consistently denied their affiliation. The organisation played a critical role in protecting the tobacco industry from allegations that ETS presented serious health risks. For instance, CIAR paid a total of $2.5 million for the “US Exposure Study” and the “US Confounders Study”. These studies served as a means of absolving the blame of ETS for lung cancer by emphasising the many other factors in its aetiology. These included diet, genetic predisposition, and unsuccessful stress management. Later analysis on these projects archived in the Minnesota Tobacco Document Depository reveals that such studies played a role “in getting the cancer monkey off the cigarette industry’s back” by attributing cancer mortality to other factors, rather than addressing the harmful effects of tobacco smoke exposure.  

On the other side, mounting evidence of the harmful impacts of ETC continued to disseminate into the public and scientific spheres, and by the end of the 1980s, the tobacco industry was not powerful enough to delay the inevitable smoking restrictions any longer. The Federal Aviation Act was established in 1988, which finally banned smoking on domestic flights of two hours or less. Two years later, the US Congress passed a law for compulsory smoke-free flights across all domestic flights, and then for international flights in 2000. The group that benefitted from these restrictions the most were certainly flight attendants, who were deemed the most susceptible to ETS-induced illnesses, including cancer and cardiovascular disease. Fortunately, extensive scientific research into the health of flight attendants strongly suggests that smoking restrictions on planes have significantly minimised their risks of respiratory illnesses.  

Airlines outside of the US, including Scandinavian Airlines and Japan Airlines, followed suit, thus initiating a global movement against in-flight smoking. In the present, the concept of smoking on a plane is virtually unheard of. The only remnants of the cigarette that remain are the “no smoking” symbols lit up above every passenger compartment. 


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Featured image credit: Image of passengers smoking on an airplane. Accessed via Used under fair use policy.

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