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Jewish World Review Sept. 17, 1999 /7 Tishrei 5760

Bob Greene

Bob Greene
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Here's another place
where you can't smoke --
WOULD YOU LIKE to be running a tobacco company today?

It's got to be one of the doomed-to-utter-failure jobs of all time. Yes, you get to be the CEO of something with a famous name -- but so did the president of Acme Buggy Whips in the days when automobiles were first taking over America's roads.

Unless they are able to addict new generations of young people by convincing them that it's coolly rebellious to smoke and hasten your death, the tobacco CEOs must know that they're finally about to sink -- and the newest indication of this has snuck up gradually.

Non-smoking restaurants you know about. Non-smoking hotel rooms you know about. Non-smoking office buildings you know about. It's becoming difficult even to remember the days when commercial airline cabins were filled with the haze of cigarette smoke.

So how could it get any worse for the tobacco companies?

Non-smoking cars.

It's already happening--as many travelers have been finding out for the last few years.

The big car-rental companies have figured something out: Many of their customers find it disgusting to get into a car they are spending money to rent, and to smell someone else's cigarette smoke.

And because the car-rental companies are in the business of making their customers happy -- and because they are confident that smokers are, as a statistical group, in a figurative death spiral, growing smaller by the year -- they are doing the same thing that the hotels, airlines and corporate building managers have done:

They are saying: "You can smoke -- but not here."

Each of the major car-rental companies (the one exception is Alamo) has reserved a significant portion of its fleet for non-smoking cars. You are allowed to rent those clean, sweet-smelling cars -- but not if you're going to smoke in them.

If you want to smoke, they've got cars for you that have been befouled by your fellow smokers.

"We will always try to get a non-smoking car for the customer," said a spokeswoman for Hertz. In the non-smoking cars, if the driver reaches for the lighter, he or she will find that it has been removed -- and replaced with a "no-smoking plug."

Smoking and driving used to go together like . . . well, like smoking and American life. Now, when you rent a non-smoking car from Budget, not only is the lighter gone, but there are three different signs telling you that you can't smoke. At Avis, a spokesman said that if it has been determined that someone has smoked in a non-smoking car, the car is immediately banished to the smoking fleet.

Why is this so important? I spoke with the top man at one of the big rental companies: Bob Briggs, president of National.

"It's the smell," he said, explaining why so many customers say they don't want to get into a car in which a previous driver has smoked. "They find it offensive."

So, Briggs said, every new car that is added to the National fleet -- every car -- is initially designated as a non-smoking car.

And stays that way, until a National employee somewhere takes a whiff and decides someone has smoked -- or finds ashes. Only then is the car relegated to the smoking fleet.

Even people who rent cars for the shortest of drives don't want to be the successor behind the wheel to some previous smoker, said Briggs, who himself is a non-smoker. "I've been in plenty of cars that have been smoked in," he said. "I can tell you -- if someone has been smoking, and then the car has sat in the hot parking lot for two hours . . . it's pretty strong."

What seems almost impossible to comprehend is how quickly America has shifted from a nation of smokers to a nation of people who abhor cigarette smoke.

What would have happened, 20 years ago, if a customer had shown up at a car-rental counter and asked the clerks for a non-smoking car?

"They probably would have thought you were nuts," Briggs said.

(Think what that customer's reaction would have been if he had been told that, within 20 years, if he wanted to smoke a cigarette in the building where he worked -- even in the dead of winter -- he would have to go stand outside on the street.)

How far can this go?

"I don't know," Briggs said. "Non-smoking states?"

JWR contributor Bob Greene is a novelist and columnist. Send your comments to him by clicking here.


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