Smoking bans are spreading from planes, trains and buses to another mode of transit: rental cars.
Beginning Oct. 1, Avis and Budget will become the first major rental-car companies to ban smoking in their entire North American fleets and to impose a cleaning fee of up to $250 on customers who smoke in the cars.
"The No. 1 request we get is for a smoke-free car," says John Barrows, spokesman of the Avis Budget Group, the parent company. He says a common customer complaint is a car that smells of smoke, adding, "We're addressing both concerns."
Barrows says employees who drive the vehicles are no longer allowed to smoke and the cars will undergo a new inspection upon return. He says it costs the company more to clean a smoky car, because it often has to be taken out of service longer.
Avis is following a smoke-free travel trend that took off two decades ago. In 1988, Congress banned smoking on short domestic flights and in 1990 expanded that to flights of up to six hours. That year, it also banned smoking on interstate buses.
In 1994, Amtrak banned smoking on short and medium-distance trips and now allows it only in a designated area of the Auto Train, which runs from outside Washington, D.C., to the Orlando area.
Other car-rental companies have taken more limited steps to address smoking. Hertz allows customers to request a smoke-free car but doesn't guarantee it, says spokeswoman Paula Rivera.
Enterprise Rent-A-Car, Alamo Rent A Car and National Car Rental do not have an "across-the-board" smoking ban but many of their locations restrict smoking, says Laura Bryant, spokeswoman of parent company Enterprise Holdings.
Anti-smoking groups hailed Avis Budget Group's ban. "Avis is protecting the rights of all of its customers to breathe clean air," says Matt Myers, president of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids.
Secondhand smoke is significantly more concentrated in cars than it is in bars, restaurants and other public places, according to a study released last month by the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.
Philip Morris USA, the nation's largest cigarette-maker, believes private business owners "should have the opportunity to make their own smoking policies," says spokesman David Sutton.
"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."
Barrows says Avis Budget Group, based on customer research, expects its smoke-free policy will help its bottom line. He says, "We think we may gain more business than we lose."