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Have smokes, will travel

The cigarette habit gets ever harder to take on the road

Josh Noel

Tribune Travels

8:24 PM EDT, July 2, 2013

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The first major smoking ban went into effect on U.S. airlines 25 years ago, and it was considered a victory by anti-smoking advocates. It restricted smoking only to flights longer than two hours.

Of course, that's laughable now.

Smoking on commercial flights seems unthinkable to most of us.

Meanwhile, as anyone who spends much time in hotels can attest, the number of smoke-free hotels also seems to be on the rise. Ditto rental-car fleets.

Though most travelers probably would endorse these growing prohibitions — the ever-waning percentage of cigarette smokers in the United States was down to an all-time low of 18.9 percent last year, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — it struck me recently how difficult traveling must be for cigarette smokers.

That's not to say it shouldn't be difficult; secondhand smoke is unpleasant and dangerous. But it does mean one-fifth of the population struggles to satisfy a legal addiction while traveling.

Robert Best, a spokesman for The Smoker's Club, a smokers' rights advocacy group, said keeping up with his pack-a-day habit requires forethought most nonsmokers can't imagine.

"It's kind of like traveling with children, where you have to think about all this random stuff ahead of time," Best said. "You think, 'I need to be as close to the elevator as possible and on (the) lowest floor possible if I want to leave the room during the night to smoke.'"

He'll drive or take the train when possible. On a recent train trip, the conductor for one leg of the trip was sympathetic and told him when he had time to hop off for a smoke. But on another leg, the conductor wouldn't let him get off the train at all.

If taking a long flight, he intentionally will book a layover in an airport with a smoking section beyond security so he can light up. When booking a hotel, he'll try to get a room with a balcony.

If that doesn't work, he'll book motels so he can just step outside his front door for a smoke.

Interestingly, he doesn't begrudge airlines for going smoke-free.

"I don't want to smoke and have it blown into a bunch of families and kids," he said.

He's frustrated that it's more difficult to find smoking rooms in hotels but understands that too.

"It's really frustrating being treated as a second-class citizen, but I realize to them it's a business decision," he said.

According to the Dutch website smokers-united.com, 42.4 percent of U.S. hotels are "smoker-friendly." That's just about in the middle of global pack, between United Kingdom (just 11.7 percent of hotels are smoker-friendly) and Austria (73 percent).

Matt Maloney, director of health policy for the Chicago-based nonprofit Respiratory Health Association, said the nation's hotels simply are responding to their customers.

In Chicago, for instance, city law mandates that a hotel have at least 75 percent nonsmoking rooms. But I had to call seven hotels before finding one with smoking rooms — and it wasn't downtown.

Maloney said it is simply the hotel industry giving the public what it wants.

"The hotel industry is meeting the market demand," Maloney said. "The dangers of secondhand smoke are well known."

Which isn't to say he is completely without sympathy for traveling smokers.

"We understand the addiction of smokers, and that's why, when we do smoke-free activities, we're always trying to assist with smoking cessation," he said.

jbnoel@tribune.com