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Utahn was `perfect' as tobacco plaintiff

Norma Broin had a mainstream Utah upbringing - playing with friends, competing on the swim team, going to her local LDS ward, attending Springville High and Brigham Young University.

She left BYU after her junior year to see the world by becoming a flight attendant. "Never in my wildest dreams" did Broin expect that, as a consequence, she would become nationally known as a crusader for a cause she now deeply believes in - eliminating the danger of secondhand smoke.The tobacco industry settled a class-action suit Friday brought by Broin, 42, who was the lead plaintiff on behalf of 60,000 flight attendants who said they had become sick breathing secondhand smoke on airplanes. The industry agreed to pay $300 million to establish the Broin Research Foundation for diseases related to smoking.

The settlement marks the first time the cigarette industry has accepted responsibility for secondhand smoke damage.

It was in September 1989 that Broin's life changed. She was lying in a Baltimore hospital bed, far from her hometown, tubes protruding from various parts of her body. She had just undergone surgery to remove a tumor from her lung. Her small daughter was visiting, and Broin asked for a goodbye kiss.

"Oh no, Mommy," came the reply. "I don't want to get what you've got."

What Broin had was lung cancer, apparently contracted by 13 years of working in smoke-filled airplanes. As a member of the LDS Church, she had never smoked herself and had been exposed to very little cigarette smoke growing up.

"She was the perfect plaintiff," said Patty Young, another flight attendant who worked closely with Broin during the six-year litigation.

It wasn't easy for Broin to file the suit two years later. Surgery removing much of her left lung had successfully removed the cancer from her body. She is a gregarious, talkative, friendly person who likes to think other people want to do the right thing.

"It was a very difficult decision," she said. "Where I come from, in Utah, nice people don't sue. (But) sometimes people don't do the right thing for the right reason unless they have a little incentive."

She has since provided incentives to other organizations. While Broin and her husband, Mark, were living in Japan where he was stationed with the Marine Corps, she took on the Department of Defense Dependent Schools, threatening legal action unless her children's school was made smoke free. A week and a half later, it was.

Broin has also been heavily involved in the fight to make more airline flights and airports smoke free.

After Broin's bout with cancer, she went back to work for American Airlines, but because of her weakened condition she insisted on flying only on smoke-free flights to smoke-free airports. That didn't sit well with management, and she wound up out of work for a year and a half.

Finally, after she got the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission involved, Broin got what she wanted.

The Americans with Disabilities Act recognizes sensitivity to tobacco smoke as a disability. If a person can get documentation of a disability from a doctor, any establishment open to the public - restaurant, train station, airplane - is required to provide that person with a smoke-free environment.

Broin and Young are the yin and the yang of the anti-second-hand smoke campaign - personality opposites who, working together, "have made a h--- of a difference," Young said. Broin is an active Mormon - Young is atheist. Broin is happily married with two children - Young is divorced.

Nevertheless, like Young, Broin is "very focused."

"She sat there every single day for five months (of trial) in the hot seat," Young said. "To have lung cancer and to listen to this savagery from the tobacco companies is very, very admirable. . . . It was very, very tough, very, very difficult. It's like fighting the big business god of the world."