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For smokers, the message is becoming increasingly clear: If you still must light up, be prepared to do it only in private.

Four years have passed since the United States banned smoking aboard all domestic airline flights. In the meantime, the no smoking sign has been posted in an increasing number of restaurants, offices, government buildings and other public facilities.Now the time has come to extend the smoking ban on airlines to international flights.

This week Delta Airlines announced it is banning smoking on all flights across the Atlantic. At the same time, American and United announced additions to their no-smoking international schedules. Meanwhile, a bill that would prohibit smoking on all flights to and from the United States is making its way through the U.S. House of Representatives.

This legislation should gain impetus from the fact smoking bans already are in effect on such foreign airlines as British Airways, Air France and Qantas.

The airlines, however, ought not to wait for such a law to take effect but should voluntarily ban smoking on international flights as a favor to themselves and their passengers.

Polls of passengers, after all, show they favor a smoking ban by margins of more than two to one. Moreover, the nation's 70,000 flight attendants want an international smoking ban. No wonder. Most international flights take at least six hours. During that time everyone aboard the plane is exposed to second-hand smoke. The exposure is most hazardous to those who do the most flying - namely, airline crews. Airlines report that many crew members feel ill after being cooped up with smokers for long periods of time.

For non-smokers, four hours in an aircraft smoking section is the equivalent, in terms of second-hand smoke inhaled, of living with a pack-a-day smoker. And second-hand smoke kills 3,000 Americans a year from lung cancer.

The clincher is the fact that more than 92 million passengers take international flights in and out of the United States each year. With international travel likely to increase for many years to come, the responsibility of the airlines and Congress should be beyond dispute: smoking aloft must go.