Remember that time you had to use the bathroom on your last flight? You may have noticed a small lever for an ashtray right next to a large no-smoking sign, and wondered to yourself why there would be an ashtray there if people are clearly not allowed to smoke on airplanes anymore?

In 2000 there was a full prohibition on smoking for all flights entering and exiting the US; however, all planes still have the ashtray feature in each of their lavatories. The reason? Because there needs to be a safe place to put out a cigarette.

Despite the smoking prohibition, there still needs to be a safe place to put out a cigarette on airplanes if someone does decide to break the law. Ashtrays are required by US law to contain potential fire hazards and minimize dangers due to a lit cigarette.

According to the regulation, “Regardless of whether smoking is allowed in any other part of the airplane, lavatories must have self-contained, removable ashtrays located conspicuously on or near the entry side of each lavatory door”. Further, if more than half of the ashtrays are broken or dysfunctional, they are required to be fixed in 72 hours.

Even though this regulation is for US flights, many other airlines around the world have these inconspicuous ashtrays, parallel to the “California effect” on environmental regulations for car emissions. California tends to set the standard for car production due to their stringent carbon emission regulations. Similarly, the US regulation sets a standard for all international aircraft makers because companies do not want to forgo the potential to land in the United States simply because their aircraft do not meet the US standards.

But, even today some amount of residual smoking and e-cigarette use continues onboard commercial airplanes. In January 2019, Chinese authorities had to clarify that an October 2017 regulation banning smoking in all passenger cabins and lavatories also applied to pilots smoking in the cockpits of aircraft. This month a US television star was caught using an e-cigarette in an airplane lavatory on a flight into Canada.

The reasons that people consume nicotine on flights are complex and much of it has to do with addiction. But, the bans on smoking in airplanes have undoubtedly been a public health boon to workers and passengers on commercial planes alike. But, the efforts to protect everyone from secondhand smoke will continue to advance, despite the presence of puzzling ashtrays on planes that will persist into the future.

By Nikisha Sisodiya