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Flying through smoke

CONGRESS's growing interest in putting new limits on in-flight smoking makes good sense. Sometimes the air inside airplanes is cloudier than that outside the windows. Passenger smoking, long an irritant to flight attendants and other nonsmoking travelers, has also been labeled a health hazard by the National Academy of Sciences and the United States surgeon general.

In newer planes, cabin air is recirculated to save fuel. Unless regularly cleaned and dissolved, the cigarette tar and nicotine can affect cabin pressure by sealing wall valves and acting like glue on safety exits and oxygen masks; mechanics often look for nicotine stains on airplane skins when searching for leaks.

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Nothing should be done which might encourage a frustrated smoker to retreat to the lavoratories to light up, posing a safety hazard to the plane; fortunately, laws barring any tampering with the smoke detectors there and sprinkler-equipped trash bins discourage such secret smoking.

A smoking ban on short flights is not too much to ask.

As of January all flights within California must hew to such a smoking ban. The US House in July passed similar legislation; it would permanently ban smoking on all domestic flights of less than two hours, about 80 percent of the total.

The Senate Appropriations Committee has given the green light to a similar bill for a ban of three years. The bill is expected to meet strong opposition on the Senate floor this week from tobacco state lawmakers and others who question the measure's constitutionality. Still, its backers remain hopeful.

Most passengers would doubtless breathe far more easily if the bill were passed.

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