WASHINGTON -- In 1987 and 1988, domestic air travelers who didn't want to inhale secondhand cigarette smoke had only one option: find flights that lasted less than two hours.
A law Congress had passed in 1987 had established a smoking prohibition of precisely that length, after which people in designated sections were perfectly entitled to light up to their heart's content. Back then, the partial ban was actually considered a victory for anti-tobacco advocates. After all, roughly 80 percent of all domestic flights lasted less than two hours.
But a group of lawmakers wanted to go much further. And the most vocal of that bunch was Sen. Frank Lautenberg.
The New Jersey Democrat, who helped pass the '87 bill, had once been a two-pack-a-day smoker himself. But over the course of his career he had come to care deeply about advancing public health through the legislative process. He authored a bill to prevent domestic abusers from possessing firearms; wrote laws that set stricter penalties and standards for drunk driving; and pushed an overhaul of the "Toxic Right to Know" Act, which required polluters to provide more information about the toxins they release into communities.
As his health began to fade this past year, Lautenberg returned to the Senate floor in a wheelchair to cast his vote in support of gun control legislation. He had authored a ban on high-capacity magazines in prior sessions and wouldn't be absent when the issue finally got its time on the floor.
It would be his last trip to the chamber. Lautenberg passed away Monday morning at the age of 89, his office announced, due to complications from viral pneumonia. Political historians will remember him as the last World War II veteran to serve in the Senate. But to those who worked with him and his office, his legacy will be as a champion of public health reform. And the most illustrative of those efforts -- the one that exemplified his vigor and persistency as a legislator -- was his fight to ban smoking on airplanes.
In the early months of 1989, Lautenberg saw an opening to completely eliminate smoking from air travel. The law passed two years prior had authorized $450,000 to study the effects of smoking on commercial airlines. More importantly, the law was set to expire in April of 1990, giving Congress a firm deadline to act.
But there were institutional obstacles. The tobacco lobby was immensely powerful, far more so than it is today. In addition, several influential senators from tobacco-growing states occupied key committee posts, enabling them to bottle up legislation.
"We had some good support in the House with Transportation, but on the Senate side, the chairman of the [Commerce, Science and Transportation] committee was Sen. Ernest Hollings (D-S.C)," Nancy Hailpern, then a lobbyist for the American Cancer Society, said in an interview. "So we knew no matter how successful we were, we would never get it through the Senate. Lautenberg came in and said, 'Okay, we have to go in a different direction.'"
Lautenberg scrapped plans to attach a smoking ban to a transportation bill and instead pushed it through the appropriations process. Hollings and Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) were far from thrilled.
"The senator from New Jersey has shown a preference for legislative ambush rather than government by the time-honored committee process," Helms said, according to news reports at the time. "He may end up rolling us, but he'll know he's been in a fight."
Lautenberg proved to be game. When tobacco-state senators tried to delay consideration of the measure through extended debate, he pushed for cloture and got it by a 77-21 margin. When those same senators challenged the bill on procedural grounds -- and got support from the Senate parliamentarian -- Lautenberg prevailed again. By a vote of 65-34, the Senate overturned the parliamentarian's ruling that the bill should have gone through the commerce committee.
''My message [to the tobacco industry] is to grow soybeans or something else,'' Lautenberg declared.
Had the process ended there, Lautenberg would have scored one of the most stunning victories in the history of anti-smoking legislation. But Congress is a bicameral body. And in the House, the only action taken was to make the two-hour ban permanent. In conference, the two chambers attempted to hammer out a compromise.
Rep. Martin Olav Sabo (D-Minn.), chewing on an unlit cigar, according to reports, suggested allowing smoking only on "very, very long flights" with a total ban on flights within the contiguous United States. A separate suggestion to allow smoking only at the tail end of flights longer than two hours was shot down. No one on the House side was willing to give Lautenberg everything he wanted. Lautenberg was unwilling to budge from his position as well.
The Los Angeles Times described the deadlock in an article dated Oct. 17, 1989:
Lautenberg and the chairman of the House conferees, Rep. William Lehman (D-Fla.) then put their heads together, literally, over the long, narrow table that divided them... After a brief recess, Lautenberg reconvened the meeting and announced: "We've had a chance to reflect on our position. Reflection always helps to cool ardor."
Lawmakers reached an agreement to ban smoking on all commercial flights within the 48 contiguous states as well as Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands. Smoking was also banned on flights of less than six hours to Alaska and Hawaii, which covered the popular routes originating out of Los Angeles but still allowed the tobacco lobby to save face.
"We were taking on a Goliath and it took the leadership of senators like Lautenberg to stay in that fight," recalled Scott Ballin, then the vice president of the American Heart Association. "Oftentimes a lawmaker will say enough is enough and give up on a bill. But persistence does pay off. He had persistence."
But Lautenberg also knew when to stop pushing, added Ballin. "You take what you can get, and six hours basically covered the entire continental United States ... He was right to say we should take what we can get and we will take the rest of it at a later time."
Following the bill's passage, Lautenberg noted that there was no provision in the law that prevented airlines from imposing even broader bans than the one passed by Congress. He then pledged to keep pushing for them to make that change, which they did, one by one.
"It's like smoking in a telephone booth," Lautenberg said of lighting up while in midair, "repulsive."