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Up In Smoke

Feb 1, 2006
2006 / February 2006

Fade in on a period cafe. The setting is Casablanca; the year is 1941. Movie icon Humphrey Bogart stars as cynical cafeowner Richard “Rick” Blaine. In his opening shot, Bogie takes a long drag from his cigarette as smoke swirls around him. And that’s just the beginning. Smoke fills almost every scene in the film classic Casablanca as characters light up anywhere and everywhere — the police station, hotels, bars, restaurants and on the streets.

It’s hardly surprising, as smoking held a prominent position in American culture in the 1940s. World Wars I and II had entrenched smoking as an acceptable behavior, and there was scant information on its health effects. Nonsmokers had little hope of escaping the nicotine haze. Even good-manners maven Emily Post advised Good Housekeeping readers in a 1940 article that nonsmokers “must learn to adapt themselves to existing conditions … and when they come into contact with smokers, it is scarcely fair that the few should be allowed to prohibit the many from the pursuit of their comforts and their pleasures.”

Well, as the old advertising slogan turned cliché goes, you’ve come a long way, baby. While smoking may still receive top billing in today’s flicks, it certainly isn’t reflective of modern American attitudes toward the nicotine habit. Spurred by the 1964 and 1986 surgeon general reports on the health consequences of smoking and secondhand smoke, the smoke-free policies that took root in the 1970s have blossomed in the 21st century.

While smokers may long for the days when they could light up anywhere, nonsmoking travelers can breathe a sigh of relief as fewer and fewer establishments allow smoking. The dominance of no-smoking policies gained ground last month when Westin Hotels and Resorts implemented a sweeping smoke-free policy affecting all of its 77 branded hotels in the United States, Canada and the Caribbean. While hotels have long offered guests a choice between smoking and nonsmoking rooms, and a few scattered hotels have enforced smoke-free policies, Westin is the first brand to introduce such a broad policy.

“It was a calculated risk, but that’s what leadership is all about,” said Sue Brush, senior vice president for Westin.

Brush said the luxury hotel chain decided to make the leap into a smoke-free world after reviewing industry and hotel research. Customer demand for nonsmoking rooms was already high at Westin, with 92 percent of guests requesting smoke-free rooms. It’s interesting to note that many smokers also requested nonsmoking rooms.

“Research showed that only 4 percent of our smoking guests smoked in their rooms, which is the lowest of all Starwood brands,” Brush said. “Eight of our hotels already had a smoke-free policy, and they’ve done it with success without alienating customers.”

In addition to meeting customer demand, the policy aligns with the hotel’s brand image, which emphasizes personal renewal and health, said Westin spokesperson Nadeen Ayala.

“We’re trying to offer that oasis in the middle of the road,” she said. “We’re all about wellness … and we want our guests to exhale and take a deep breath when they come into the hotel. Part of that is a smoke-free environment.”

Joe McInerney, president of the American Hotel and Lodging Association, predicted Westin will gain a bigger share of the nonsmoking market because those customers want a guarantee they won’t be forced into a smoking room.

“People who want to be assured of a nonsmoking room will pick a Westin when there is a choice, especially if they’ve had a bad experience at another chain,” he said.

As other hotels monitor Westin’s progress, the trend in the industry appears to be headed toward smoke-free environments, especially in boutique hotels, McInerney said.

“It is interesting and it will pay off for Westin — at least in the short term, until someone else does it,” he said. “They did a lot of research and decided to take the plunge … and they should be commended for that.”

Westin does not have franchised properties, which, McInerney said, will give the brand an advantage. It is more difficult to implement a brand-wide policy in a franchised chain since individual properties must agree to comply.

Norman E. Kjono, spokesman and online columnist for the consumer advocacy group Forces International (www.forces.org), said his organization supports the rights of businesses to make their own rules, but draws the line at government legislation mandating smoke-free policies.

“You have every right to do it, and you also have every right to experience the economic consequences of doing so,” he said.

Still, Kjono said, upscale brands such as Westin can typically eliminate smoking without severe consequences because the policy suits its clientele.

The travel industry has long been a trailblazer in the great smoking debate. Travelers were among the first to be affected by smoking bans when airlines such as TWA, American and United created nonsmoking sections in their aircraft in 1971. Two years later, the U.S. government required that all airlines designate nonsmoking sections on aircraft.

In 1987, traveling smokers again took a hit when the government banned smoking on domestic flights of less than two hours. Within three years, smoking was prohibited on all domestic flights, except to Hawaii and Alaska. Today, all U.S. airlines have eliminated smoking on domestic and international flights.

While smoke was clearing overhead, the smoke-free movement was catching fire in communities throughout the country. In the 1970s, Arizona and Minnesota became the first states to prohibit smoking in public places. Communities such as Madison, Wis., and Berkeley, Calif., also passed ordinances designed to reduce exposure to secondhand smoke. By the time the surgeon general concluded in 1986 that “nonsmokers are placed at increased risk for developing disease as the result of exposure to environmental tobacco smoke,” 40 states and the District of Columbia already had enacted legislation to restrict lighting up in public buildings.

Gene Borio, webmaster of the tobacco information site Tobacco.org, cited the 1994 Congressional hearings conducted by Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) for fueling Americans’ growing distaste for cigarettes and smoking. Seven chief executive officers of big tobacco companies testified under oath before Congress that they did not believe that nicotine was addictive.

“A lot of people got really angry at the industry at this point, and realized there was a direct lie going on,” Borio said.

New York City’s Smoke-Free Air Act of 1995 eliminated smoking in restaurants with more than 35 seats, though it still allowed smoking in bars. That same year, California also prohibited smoking in dining establishments, and in 1998 it became the first state to outlaw smoking in clubs and bars.

Since the mid-1990s, city- and statewide bans on smoking in public buildings, restaurants and bars have gained momentum as nonsmokers assert their right to avoid exposure to secondhand smoke. According to the American Nonsmokers’ Rights Foundation, as of last October there were 14 states with laws requiring 100 percent smoke-free workplaces and/or restaurants and bars. In December, Washington state’s comprehensive smoke-free legislation, Initiative 901, went into effect. To date, it is the strictest state policy governing smoking — the ban includes restaurants, bars, taverns and nontribal casinos, and restricts smoking in front of entryways.

Kjono said that Forces International research shows these kinds of bans do not typically affect large-chain restaurants; rather, they have a “draconian” effect on small, independent restaurants. However, he speculated that Washington state’s new law may hurt larger restaurants that have smoking areas outside their doorways.

“Smokers aren’t going to ostracize themselves in the middle of the street,” he said. “A large part of the trade is migrating to tribal casinos [which aren’t included in the ban]. The consumers go where the market accommodates their preferences.”

That economic fact is why Borio believes smoke-free policies will continue to filter through communities and businesses throughout the United States and the world.

“As smoking goes down in this country, you have more and more nonsmokers who don’t want to be exposed to smoking because of somebody else’s whim,” he said. “People are more sensitized both to the issue and the smell itself.”

Sixty-six years later, that’s a direct reversal of the advice Emily Post offered in her Good Housekeeping column.

Next Stop, Europe
While Westin Hotels and Resorts’ properties in the United States, Canada and the Caribbean adjust to the new smoke-free policy, its hotels in Europe and Latin America will continue to offer smoking rooms.

“We’re launching first in [North America], and we’ll learn from it before going to Europe and Latin American hotels,” said Westin spokeswoman Nadeen Ayala.

A cigarette lover’s haven since no-smoking policies began to take root in the United States, Europe is undergoing change as government and business smoking bans become more prevalent. In March 2004, Ireland was the first country in the world to enact nationwide legislation that prohibits smoking in all workplaces, including office buildings, restaurants, bars and pubs. Norway, Italy, Sweden and Spain also have enacted smoking bans that include bars and restaurants. Next month, a workplace smoking ban will go into effect in Scotland.

Europe’s rail system is also moving toward eliminating smoking on most trains.

Switzerland recently joined Italy, Belgium, the Netherlands, Norway and Sweden in banning smoking on its national rail network.

“In addition to protecting nonsmoking passengers and staff from passive smoke, the ban will also free up more seats, as smoking compartments — typically underutilized — are being converted into nonsmoking compartments,” said Fabrice Morel, president and chief executive officer of the Rail Europe Group.

Since 2004, France has not allowed smoking on its high-speed trains, and all other French trains will eliminate smoking this year. Several other countries, including Finland, Great Britain, Germany and Austria, have also implemented smoking restrictions on train service.


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