From the Archives: Frank Lautenberg on Drinking Age, Secondhand Smoke

Frank R. Lautenberg, a New Jersey Democrat, five-term senator, and the last World War II veteran remaining in the Senate, died Monday morning. He was 89. He appeared on the The MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour on June 28, 1984

In the 1980s, Frank R. Lautenberg led his first two extraordinary fights in the U.S. Senate.

A freshmen senator in 1984, Lautenberg pushed through legislation establishing the national drinking age at 21.

From our tape library, the PBS NewsHour unearthed this interview with the New Jersey Democrat, in which he discusses with two newspaper editors who oppose the legislation his reasons for taking the “hammer” on the drinking age and sponsoring what was then referred to as “the drunk driving bill.”

He told Robert MacNeil:

I don’t think the Congress is going to back off. We see a movement in this country to abolish drunk driving. We know that this group, the age 16-to-20 group, is the only group in our society who in the last 20 years haven’t had an increase in their life expectancy. There’s strong public sentiment against permitting this to continue, and this is one group, unfortunately, that is being singled out where we can do some good. And I don’t think there’s going to be a mood at all. Remember, the president of the United States, who is a prominent states rightist, changed his mind to get this going. And that tells you something about what the mood out there is.

Five years later, Lautenberg would lead another successful fight — this time, a ban on smoking on all commercial flights.

He would again appear on The MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour. We uncovered this interview where he cites the perils of secondhand smoke exposure for crews, and children, on airplanes.

Lautenberg appeared on The MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour on Nov. 19, 1987.

He relayed to correspondent Judy Woodruff:

The Surgeon General has said in a report very recently issued that separating smokers from nonsmokers on an airplane may reduce the exposure, but it doesn’t eliminate it. They further say that involuntary smoking is a cause of disease, coughing, lung cancer. They say further that it’s evidenced by the fact that children who live in smoking homes often have pulmonary, respiratory problems, develop less mature lungs in smoking households, than they do in non smoking households. And when you confine that to an airplane cabin, the problems get much worse.

Alex Ozenberger contributed to this report.

Watch Monday’s NewsHour for more on the legacy of Frank R. Lautenberg.