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He doesn't dispute the dangers of secondhand smoke, but travel columnist Christopher Elliott wonders if the travel industry has taken its crackdown on smokers a bit too far.
By Christopher Elliott Travel columnist
msnbc.com contributor
updated 6/22/2009 10:55:46 AM ET 2009-06-22T14:55:46

Haven’t smokers suffered enough already? You can’t help but wonder when you talk with someone like Efrin Knight, a French professor from Miami who enjoys an occasional cigar. “It’s more and more difficult to get out of my home because of the tyranny of nonsmokers,” he says.

Knight doesn’t want to light up a Cuban on a plane or bus, or even in a hotel room. He’d settle for outdoors. “I find it extremely difficult to have an espresso once I’ve turned on my cigar, except in places like Miami’s Little Havana,” he says.

It’s more than a little ironic that the persecution of smokers is a legitimate issue in 2009. Just two short decades ago, the travel industry was more than accommodating to visitors who wanted to have a cigarette. You could puff away in rental cars, hotel rooms, restaurants — even on flights.

Not today.

  • Smoking isn’t allowed on scheduled commercial flights within the United States and on a vast majority of international flights. A partial ban went into effect in 1990 and a complete ban was announced in 1998. Not content to leave well enough alone, the latest FAA reauthorization bill will end smoking even on nonscheduled flights.
  • Most hotel rooms are designated nonsmoking, according to the American Hotel & Lodging Association. The industry-wide number rose to 86 percent of rooms last year, up from 74 percent in 2006.
  • Some rental car companies, including Enterprise and Alamo, forbid smoking in their cars, while others divide their fleet between smoking and non-smoking vehicles. If there’s a trend, it’s toward banning smoking in all rental cars.
  • Statewide smoking bans are now common. This spring, North Carolina — yes, America’s premier tobacco-producing state — instituted an indoor smoking ban, following more than 30 other states, including Virginia. Smoking will not be permitted in restaurants and bars in the Tar Heel State.

Have we gone too far? Do smokers have to start their own airline in order to escape from our collective tyranny? First, a confession: I’m heavily biased toward non-smokers. I grew up in Europe in the 1970s, where travelers could light up everywhere and anywhere they pleased. One of the happiest days of my life was June 30, 2003, when an indoor smoking ban went into effect in my home state of Florida, and I could finally savor a restaurant meal without gagging on secondhand smoke.

Still, are we being a little overzealous here?

Before I offer a few reasons for declaring a truce on the tourism industry’s war on smokers, allow me to draw one more distinction: I’m not necessarily talking about the global travel business, only the U.S. industry. In other parts of the world, smokers still rule — for better or worse. Lanny Grossman just returned from Eastern Europe, where he experienced a kind of reverse discrimination. “I had to leave a nightclub in Sarajevo because I couldn’t breathe,” he says. “In Budapest, my dinner table at one of the sidewalk cafes was surrounded by smoke in every direction. There was nowhere to escape.”

Here’s why we need to lighten up when it comes to smoking.

1. There are lots of smokers.
About 1 in 4 adults — roughly 47 million people — smoke in the United States, according to the American Council for Drug Education. The number of adolescents is even higher — about one-third of young people smoke. At the beginning of the antismoking crackdown in the United States, smokers were said to command $1 trillion in annual purchasing power, but today they are treated as if they are invisible and impecunious.

2. They feel unwelcome.
Smokers are treated like second-class citizens when they travel, says Jacob Grier, a bartender who lives in Portland, Ore. Local antismoking ordinances are so strict that he can’t even light up in his own apartment. “Guests have to take an elevator down four stories and walk outside to a sidewalk on a busy street to light up, even though I have an outdoor balcony,” he says. “I can understand forbidding smoking inside the apartment, but this is just bad hospitality.” Grier’s experience is not uncommon for travelers. Whether it’s a smoke-free hotel or restaurant, the needs of smokers are rarely taken into consideration these days.

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3. They have nowhere to go.
Communities are moving beyond reasonable indoor smoking bans, and trying to stamp out smoking altogether. Some of the most restrictive laws forbid smoking just about everywhere. Lighting up on the verandah or by the pool is no longer possible. Zak McCune has a front-row seat to the aftershocks of such restrictive nonsmoking laws in Japan. “It used to be a smoker’s paradise,” he says. “Now they’ve enacted laws that take away the smoker’s safe zones.” Those include fewer smoking cars on the bullet train and the elimination of smoking areas on train platforms. McCune, who teaches English, says Japanese reaction to the new laws is disbelief.

Is the travel industry turning its back on a quarter of its customers? Some of it is, some isn’t.

Cruise lines may be the sole bright spot for smokers, even though their effort to accommodate smokers is often alienating the other three-quarters of customers. At least that’s how Barbara Hershberg sees it. She just returned from a cruise from Portugal to Italy, and reports they were overwhelmed by second-hand smoke. “Cigarette and cigar odors permeated so many areas, and for some reason, seemed to linger in the stairwells, even though there was no indoor smoking except at the casino,” she says.

Should the travel industry try to turn back the clock, pushing for laws that permit smoking in hotels, planes and restaurants?

No. The dangers of secondhand smoke are indisputable. But shouldn’t smokers be allowed to enjoy a cigarette, cigar or pipe when they aren’t exposing anyone else to the dangerous carcinogens to which they’re addicted? As long as smoking is legal in America, the answer to that question ought to be: “yes.”

Even ardent nonsmokers like Bill Armstrong, a consultant based in Calgary, concede that smokers should have a place in this world. “In my opinion, a smoking area in a hotel should be away from where guests normally go,” he says. “The smoke from the smoking area should not blow into the hotel, pool or rooms.”

I agree. I think just as we used to allow smokers to indiscriminately consume tobacco products anywhere, we’ve now gone too far in the other direction. Maybe it’s time for a little balance.

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