Tobacco industry and airlines

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This article is part of the Tobacco portal on Sourcewatch funded from 2006 - 2009 by the American Legacy Foundation.

Commercial airlines and airline employees battled for decades to end smoking on flight. In so doing, they met with strong resistance from the tobacco industry. This article contains information detailing that resistance.

Smoking bans on airlines

Early advocacy efforts to make commercial airliners smoke-free between 1969 and 1984 generally resulted in the enactment of only modest measures, like the creation of smoking and non-smoking sections on aircraft, and a ban on cigar and pipe smoking. In May of 1973, the Civil Aeronautics Board (CAB) required domestic airlines to provide "no smoking" areas aboard aircraft for consumer comfort and protection. The rule became effective July 1, 1973. In January of 1979, CAB modified its 1973 rule, making it more comprehensive: the new rules required airlines to segregate cigar and pipe smokers, ban smoking when the airplane's ventilation system is not fully functional, ensure that non-smokers are not unreasonably burdened when a no-smoking section is sandwiched between two smoking sections, provide a sufficient number of seats in the non-smoking areas be made available to accommodate all persons who wish to be seated in such rows, and expand the non-smoking areas to meet passenger demand. In 1981 CAB re-evaluated its smoking regulations and backtracked, eliminating the absolute right of passengers to a no-smoking seat if they arrived late for check-in. The Board also decided that aircraft with fewer than 30 seats should be exempt from smoking rules entirely, and that carriers should decide for themselves what level of smoking should be allowed when the ventilation is not fully functional.

The health advocacy group Action on Smoking and Health reacted to the backtracking by filing a motion to stay this loosening of the rules governing smoking on airplanes. This document contains briefs filed by the airline companies opposing the stay. Of interest is the statement by Kevin Kelly of Transamerica Airlines' Passenger Services Department, where he complains about that the stay would cause morale problems among employees, and that the new rules would make it take longer to seat passengers.

Also of interest are the discussions of segregating pipe and cigar smokers in particular, "requiring smoking areas consist of at least two rows" of the aircraft, rules that failed to limit the number of smoking areas in each compartment, and measures to provide specific segregation of cigar and pipe smokers.

This document indicates the difficulty airlines had in dealing with smoking and nonsmoking sections aboard aircraft, and the progress that has been made since that time in removing smoking from commercial airplanes.[1]

R.J. Reynolds and Northwest Airlines

In a 1988 letter, F. Ross Johnson, President and Chief Executive Officer of [[R.J. Reynolds|RJR Nabisco], wrote to Northwest Airlines to protest its voluntary ban on smoking on aircraft by announcing a boycott of the airlines by his company and its subsidiaries:

"Based on your decision to ban smoking aboard Northwest Airlines flights, I must inform you that RJR Nabisco, Inc., as well as its operating companies, can no longer view Northwest Airlines as a company that wishes to maintain a productive business relationship with RJR Nabisco...I have therefore instructed our 120,000 employees world-wide to seek carriers other than Northwest Airlines for their transportation needs..."

This is an example of the type of economic aggression tobacco companies inflicted upon businesses that voluntarily adopted smoke-free policies, to try and pressure them into changing their policies. An article describing the industry's aggressive behavior towards other businesses on account of their tobacco-free policies can be found in the September 2000 issue of Tobacco Control journal.[2]

R.J. Reynolds and Delta Airlines

R.J. Reynolds, like Philip Morris, used a variety of tactics to pressure airlines to reverse their smoke-free policies. One tactic was running anti-airline ads. Another common tactic was to urge tobacco company employees to write letters to the airlines expressing strong dissatisfaction with the new policy. Today's document is an internal email showing that an employee of the R.J. Reynolds tobacco company (RJR) drafted the text of a suggested letter for employees to sign, and sent it out to employees. The email sent by a R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company (RJR) employee Richard Shouse to all employees of RJR's Research and Development department and it demonstrates the rhetoric RJR suggested its employees use to protest Delta Airlines' trans-Atlantic smoking ban in 1994:

"Dear Delta,

I am extremely upset and concerned with your announced 'smoke free policy on transatlantic flights'. Your precedence setting policy would willfully discriminate against smokers. If you implement this blatant anti-smoking policy, I and all I can influence will do all we can to make sure Delta goes the way of Eastern Airlines, which as you remember was the first to implement such a policy on domestic flights.

I am bringing the issue before all of RJR Nabisco and their suppliers and all connected to their businesses and interests in this community and through out the whole world..."[3]

Philip Morris and airline smoking bans

British Airways

An August 3, 1993, British Airways (BA) issued a press release announcing that all of its European flights of 90 minutes or less would become smoke-free. The press release pointed out that this is the amount of time it takes to ride the Central Line of the London Subway from one end to the other, and that the subway had by that time been smoke-free for several years. The press release said that three-quarters of all passengers on its non-smoking flights had said they would continue to fly BA after the measure was implemented.[4]

The Philip Morris Tobacco Company immediately started looking for ways to pressure British Airways into reversing its decision to make flights smoke-free. One of the people leading PM's campaign against British Airways was Matthew Winokur of Philip Morris Worldwide Regulatory Affairs.

An email titled BA Tactics written by Winokur in September, 1993 suggests a "grassroots strategy" of using Philip Morris' employees to pressure British Airways to reverse the ban. Winokur suggests that all PM employees (and the employees of other tobacco companies) who travel on British Airways should be furnished with a blank piece of paper with their tickets along with instructions to submit a written complaint to British Airways about the lack of smoking seats on their flights. The plan would create the impression that large numbers of British Airways customers were unhappy with the smoking restrictions. Presumably the reason that Winokur wanted to furnish the employees with BLANK paper (and not tobacco company letterhead) was to obscure the fact that the complaints were coming from tobacco company employees.

Of his idea, Winokur stated,

"If PM and our allies all do this, we could create the impression that passengers ... are in fact not pleased with the ban. This will go head on with the ban....What do you think? This could create a real volume of letters ..."[5]

Such letter-writing campaigns are a typical method that tobacco companies use to create the impression of a "grass roots" uprising against smoking restrictions.

Nordic area

A May, 1988 memo from the Philip Morris (PM) collection shows the tobacco industry's behind-the-scenes activities to combat voluntary and legislated smoking bans on northern European airlines in the late 1980s. The memo says, "OBJECTIVE: Persuade the management of airlines to adopt policies which permit smokers to enjoy cigarettes during flights."

PM's strategy was to get airline management to defer the bans while the tobacco industry's nonprofit front organization, the supposedly independent Center for Indoor Air Research (CIAR), performed "studies" of in-flight indoor air quality. The "research" (the outcome of which was evidently pre-determined) was to be paid for by CIAR so "CIAR then can be correctly named as a sponsor of the research -- which will diminish the effectiveness of the anti's PR efforts to challenge the credibility of the research." The results of the "studies" of in-flight air quality would then be shopped around to strategic media targets:

"Via ETS Whitecoats, the results of this IFAQ [In-flight Air Quality] research should be published in airline trade press and scientific/medical journals in the Nordic countries."

Note that the phrase "ETS Whitecoats" refers to Philip Morris' "Whitecoat Project," through which PM screened and recruited a stable of scientific witnesses in most developed and semi-developed countries worldwide who were paid by the tobacco industry to make pro-industry comments on secondhand smoke issues "to keep the controversy alive." Their work was "filtered" by industry attorneys to assure that it agreed with industry positions.

Other tobacco industry tactics for fighting in-flight smoking bans included stimulating tobacco industry employees to flood Finnair with mail protesting the smoking ban:

" ... Organize a direct mail campaign to stimulate letters, postcards and telephone calls to Finnair urging that smokers be permitted to smoke cigarettes on Finnair flights. This campaign should target Finnish tobacco company managers, union/employees & shareholders. Wholesalers and retailers should also be asked to participate ... [W]e should consider discussing in advance with Finnair's CEO, Mr. Potila, this 'market research.' [6]

Although the tobacco industry champions "free choice," behind the scenes they work to combat voluntary smoking bans.

Philip Morris and French airlines

A Philip Morris document also proposes a list of possible strategies PM could use to orchestrate an economic attack on the French airline Air France for its decision to ban smoking on all its European flights under 2 hours starting January 1, 1993:

Have smokers in EC cancel reservations on basis of the ban.

* Mobilize PM travel agents and allies against ban. * Mobilize Smokers' Rights Groups. * PM companies boycott of Air France.

* Initiate cigarette industry boycott of Air France.[7]

Articles and resources

Related SourceWatch articles


  1. Richard Kingham, Covington & Burling Memorandum to Committee of Counsel Memorandum. November 5, 1981. 33 pp, starting at PDF page 17; Bates No. TI05390221-TI05390253
  2. F.R. Johnson, RJR Nabisco As Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of RJR Nabisco, Inc., I want to express my extreme disappointment with Northwest Airlines' decision to ban smoking on all its flights within North America Letter. 1 page. March 29, 1988. Bates No. 506646914
  3. Richard Shouse, R.J> Reynolds Please Write Delta Airlines - Smoke Free Policy Letter/Email. November 24, 1994. Bates No. 519179945/9946
  4. British Airways News Release - Smoking-Free Flgihts for Europe Press release. August 3, 1993. 1 page. Bates No. 2024203669
  5. Matthew Winokur, Philip Morris BA Tactics Email/Telex. 1 page. August, 1993. Bates No. 2024203673
  6. Philip Morris In-Flight Air Quality Tests (IFAQ) on Nordic-Based Airline Report. May 4, 1988. 3 pages. Bates No. 2501458517/8519
  7. G. Wirz, Philip Morris Corporate Services, Philip Morris International PMCS Draft Strategy Document - Retreat Report/letter. January 1, 1993. 8 pp. Bates No. 2501140155/0162

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