Consumer Law

Its Getting Harder to Light Up

First it was airplanes. Then it was trains and buses. Now, smoking bans have extended to rental cars.

On October 1, 2009, Avis and Budget, two popular rental car companies, have become the first to ban smoking in all of their North American cars.

Why Ban Smoking in Rental Cars?

It costs the companies more to clean a smoky car because it often has to be taken out of service longer. "The No. 1 request we get is for a smoke-free car," says John Barrows, spokesman of the Avis's parent company. He says a common customer complaint is a car that smells of smoke, adding, "We're addressing both concerns."

Other car-rental companies have taken more limited steps to address smoking. For example, the company Hertz allows customers to request a smoke-free car, but they won't guarantee it. Other companies such as Enterprise and Alamo, while restricting smoking in some locations, don't have a smoking ban enforced across the board.

Supporters and Opponents

Anti-smoking groups support Avis and Budget's ban, pleased that the companies are protecting their customers' rights to breathe clean air. According to a study by the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, secondhand smoke is significantly more concentrated in cars than it is in bars, restaurants and other public places.

Meanwhile, Philip Morris, the country's largest cigarette-maker, is disappointed and believes business owners should be able to make their own smoking policies. "It's disappointing but it's their private property," says Gary Nolan of the Smoker's Club, a part of the Citizens Freedom Alliance, which aims to protect private property rights. Nolan, a smoker, says he used to rent often from Budget, adding, "I won't rent from them again."2

Your Entire Vacation May Be Affected

Smoking is also prohibited in many hotel chains, as well as rental cars.

Several years ago, hotel chains began to go smoke-free. Back in January 2006, Westin was the first hotel chain to ban smoking in all of its 77 locations in the United States, Canada and the Caribbean. Smoking is no longer permitted in guest rooms, restaurants, bars and all other indoor public spaces. Guests can only smoke on balconies and other outdoor areas.

Since the Westin smoking ban was announced, many independent hotels followed. Starwood began a smoke-free initiative in December 31, 2008 affecting more than 300 hotels. Marriott also decided that all of its 2,300 hotels in the United States and Canada will be 100% smoke free, becoming the largest ban in the hotel industry to date, affecting over 400,000 guest rooms.

Why Are Hotels Going Smoke-Free?

In response to new information over the past few years regarding the dangers of secondhand smoke, requests for non-smoking guest rooms has been on the rise. Even smokers tend to request non-smoking rooms. Therefore the demand for non-smoking rooms has increased. For hotels, the benefits outweigh the possible loss of bookings from smoking guests.

Smoking rooms incurred more costs for cleaning and repairs of burned furniture and carpeting. Also, having all rooms designated as non-smoking simplifies tracking available room inventory.

Westin said it made the decision based on guest surveys showing that 92 percent asked for non-smoking rooms and 80 percent said they prefer keeping dining and other common areas smoke-free. While acknowledging that they initially may lose some business, the hotel chain expects to make it up with new customers who prefer the policy.

The Negatives

Smokers are unhappy with these changes. Furthermore, converting these rooms is not easy. It costs an average of $200 per room to clean, repair and install new air filters. Lastly, international travelers not used to the strict smoking policies may not understand. Therefore, many hotels that cater to international travelers, such as the resorts at Walt Disney World in Florida, will continue to offer smoking rooms. However, most hotel chains don't ban smoking in their casinos, adding to the confusion.

Getting Caught

In many of the chains, anyone caught lighting up will be charged $200 for a cleaning fee. "Once you smoke in there, you've violated that entire environment and we have to clean it all over again."3 Avis and Budget will inspect cars upon return. Butts in the ashtray or a smoke smell could mean $250 tacked on to your bill.

Proving It

Both hotels and rental cars will have the issue of proving that you smoked. Unless there are butts or burn marks, how can either company prove that you smoked? Thus, the policies may be a deterrence rather than a complete ban. In the meanwhile, vacationers may need to do a little extra research to determine which companies are smoker-friendly.

Sources

1 Wendy Koch, Budget, Avis Ban Smoking In Cars, USA Today, Sept, 14, 2009, http://www.usatoday.com/money/autos/2009-09-14-smoking-rental-cars_N.htm, accessed Oct. 19, 2009.
2Id.
3 John W. Schoen, Hotel Industry Eyes Extended Smoking Bans, msnbc.com, Dec. 6, 2009, http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/10350994/, accessed Oct. 19, 2009.

Questions for Your Attorney

  • Is there any legal action or remedy to seek if you think you've been discriminated against or penalized due to smoking, or being perceived as a smoker? What if a possible employer thinks you're a smoker?
  • I'm a nonsmoker, but I was in a smoking environment - now the hotel where I stayed has billed my credit card for cleaning due to smoking in a non-smoking room. It's a hefty charge; can I refuse to pay?
  • I was stuck on a long airline flight and was seated next to someone carrying an overpowering smoke odor, and the attendants wouldn't let me move to an open seat in another class. Can consumers sue a business for not providing smoke-free environments?

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