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Lambert-St. Louis International Airport will become smoke-free on Jan. 2, thanks to smoke-free air ordinances in St. Louis and St. Louis County, which voters overwhelmingly approved with Proposition N in November 2009.

The Missouri Group Against Smoking Pollution's airport campaign began in earnest in 1993 when it supported a bill in the St. Louis County Council to make Lambert smoke-free. It was defeated following behind-the-scenes collusion between then-County Council committee chair, John Shear, and the Tobacco Institute, the tobacco industry's lobbying arm.

Damning evidence of tobacco industry efforts to ensure continued smoking in major American airports, including Lambert, was detailed in a 1990 document titled "Airport Strategy Plan," discovered by political science professor Michael Givel during an extensive search of formerly secret Tobacco Institute documents made public following a Minnesota state lawsuit. (The document was featured in a Post-Dispatch editorial "Tobacco: Smoking Gun" on July 16, 2000, and in a 2000 scholarly report by Drs. Michael Givel and Stanton Glantz, "The Public Health Undermined: The Tobacco Industry's Legacy in Missouri in the 1990s.")

The Airport Strategy Plan's primary goal was to accommodate smokers, including a tactic used even today by opponents of smoke-free air laws: "Promote the recognition that effective ventilation, air filtration/cleaning technology is the main issue in indoor air quality, not smoking restrictions or bans."

After the defeat in the county, GASP pursued a federal Americans with Disabilities Act discrimination complaint against Lambert on behalf of two smoke-sensitive individuals, one an asthmatic from St. Louis. That led to a meeting between GASP and the Lambert Airport director in December 1994. The director said he was leaning toward making the airport smoke-free.

However, in a subsequent meeting with Airport Architectural Manager William Fronick, GASP was informed that instead the airport was going to install seven smoking rooms exhausted outside, at a cost reported later as $450,000. GASP warned Fronick that the smoking rooms wouldn't work because secondhand smoke would diffuse out the open doorway and into adjoining areas, but this was ignored.

After the first smoking lounges were opened in early 1997, Fronick made an astonishing observation to a Post-Dispatch reporter: "You could see the blue haze inside, but nothing came out of the door," he said. "We assume if you can't see it, it's not there."

Fronick's logic, that toxins and carcinogens that are invisible don't exist, is patently absurd.

In late 1993 and early 1994, GASP conducted a covert nicotine monitor test near a smoking room in Lambert and had similar tests conducted in smoke-free Seattle-Tacoma International Airport for comparison. The Lambert test proved significant amounts of secondhand smoke were escaping out the open doorway, and that smoking around airport entrances also was contributing.

The following year, those results were featured in a News Channel 5 Cover Story, which included a comment by a British passenger waiting near a smoking room: "I call it a death box. It looks like a sort of living coffin."

Exposure to the secondhand smoke near the smoking lounges increased the risk of heart disease and lung cancer. The estimated risk for lung cancer from the secondhand smoke one of the smoking lounges, based on nicotine level, was 60 times greater than for U.S. Environmental Protection Agency regulated human carcinogens, GASP president Martin Pion then told the television interviewer.

James Repace, a former EPA indoor-air quality scientist and now an internationally recognized consultant on secondhand smoke, told the reporter that chronic exposure to secondhand smoke levels outside the smoking lounges posed a heart disease mortality risk to nearby airport workers that was 600 times greater than federal "acceptable" risk level of 1 death per 1 million exposed population per working lifetime.

Repace concluded, "If I were working there I would make a complaint to my management that I was being exposed to toxic waste."

In March 2004, our peer-reviewed paper "Airport smoking rooms don't work" was published in the scientific journal, Tobacco Control. The paper included a nicotine-monitor smoking room measurement by Environmental Solutions in St. Louis, confirming GASP's earlier result.

In response, Lambert quietly removed the smoking room tested in the paper but continued to defend the rest whenever threatened by legislation.

Now, the new ordinances will bring this sorry chapter to a close. They are a major victory for everyone who frequents Lambert and shows how persistent activism in the public interest can prevail against Big Tobacco.

Martin Pion is president of the Missouri Group Against Smoking Pollution Inc. and Michael Givel is an associate professor of political science at the University of Oklahoma.