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Where There's Smoke, There's Ire

December 07, 1986|PETER S. GREENBERG | Greenberg is a Los Angeles free-lance writer.

Many of you remember the recent Great American Smoke-Out sponsored by the American Cancer Society. On Thursday, Nov. 20, millions of American smokers attempted to kick the habit.

But few of you probably remember that Nov. 20 also marked the last day of another attempted smoke-out . . . by a major airline.

The Great American Smoke-Out was considered a success. But a similar monthlong attempt by Continental Airlines, aimed at getting its passengers to kick the habit, may have gone up in smoke.

Still, the Continental experience tells us a lot about smokers, the tobacco lobby and how airlines approach the problem.

As many airline executives will admit privately, it's not easy to ban smoking.

Certainly, there is something to be said about the hostile climate between those who smoke on airplanes and those who don't.

A Foolish Belief

There are those smokers who claim that no amount of regulation will resolve the conflict, and there are those who believe that without regulation, the conflict will only get worse. Some foolishly believe that the answer can be found by exercising common courtesy.

Recent experiences don't seem to indicate that mere politeness will solve anything. One Eastern Airlines shuttle flight between New York and Washington, D.C., had to divert to Baltimore after a fight broke out between smokers and nonsmokers. And there have been other outbreaks of smoking-related violence among airline passengers.

But only a few airlines have ever tried to eliminate smoking. A few years ago Muse Airlines began a total no-smoking policy on its planes. The move was heralded by nonsmokers and the airline. But the airline started losing some of its market share to airlines that permitted their passengers to light up.

Thus, when an airline makes even an attempt to encourage voluntary nonsmoking, it's taking a risk of alienating some customers.

Well-Publicized Report

Early last August a well-publicized report on smoking was released by the National Academy of Sciences. The report detailed health and safety risks associated with smoking for smokers and nonsmokers alike.

"We studied the report carefully," says Continental spokesman Bruce Hicks, a two-pack-a-day smoker. "One of the things that struck us was that the report called for legislative and administrative bans on smoking, and the report also cited its concerns about the effects of ambient smoke on airline crew members."

Jim O'Donnell, Continental's vice president of marketing services (a three-pack-a-day smoker), thought he had a great idea. Within a week, meetings were held at the airline's headquarters in Houston and an innovative anti-smoking incentive plan was launched.

"We felt that our smoking policies were fair and equitable," Hicks reports, "but we wanted to see whether a voluntary program with incentives would have an impact on on-board smoking."

On Aug. 13 Continental announced its trial nonsmoking program for all of its domestic flights. Under the program, nonsmoking passengers would receive a coupon good for 10% off the airline's already deeply discounted advance purchase fares, and the coupons could be redeemed through Nov. 20, to coincide with the Great American Smoke-Out.

Chance to Give Up

Nonsmoking passengers using the coupons could save $25.80 on a round trip between Los Angeles and New York, $59.80 on flights between Houston and London and $119.60 on round trips between New York and Sydney, Australia.

"Everyone knows smoking is unhealthy," said Continental President Phil Bakes, a reformed smoker. "So we're offering our smoking passengers a chance to give up the habit on our planes. And we'll save them money to do it. We're also rewarding our nonsmokers for their healthy life style."

Thousands of discount coupons were printed and distributed throughout Continental's route system. On Aug. 25 the program began.

At each Continental gate brochures announced the program. Employees handed out packs of bubblegum cigarettes along with a reprint of an article on how to stop smoking.

Any passenger who endured the flight without smoking was given a 10% discount coupon.

Within days the airline was hit by an intense lobbying effort launched by a major tobacco company. Letters opposed to Continental's program poured in. But Continental refused to stop the program.

"The smokers felt we were infringing on their rights," Hicks said, "but we weren't. We hadn't banned smoking. We had only offered an incentive for those who didn't."

"It was never Continental's intention to judge life-style issues," O'Donnell said, "but rather to determine if a voluntary program might have a positive impact on reducing on-board smoking."

Did the program work?

Flights Monitored

Continental decided that the only way to measure the effectiveness of the program would be to monitor a selection of 50 flights, 25 from Denver and 25 from Houston on the Wednesday, Thursday and Friday before the start of the program.

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