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Pioneer who banned smokers at his hotel

By Bob Greene, CNN Contributor
A woman holds cigarette during 2006 opening of a Chicago tobacco lounge owned by the R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company.
A woman holds cigarette during 2006 opening of a Chicago tobacco lounge owned by the R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company.
  • Bob Greene: Lyndon Sanders opened the Non-Smokers Inn 30 years ago
  • Greene says the hotel eventually had to accept smokers as travel industry changed
  • Today thousands of hotels have banned smoking
  • Greene: Sanders feels a quiet satisfaction that so many are following his example

Editor's note: CNN Contributor Bob Greene is a best-selling author whose books include "Late Edition: A Love Story" and "Once Upon a Town: The Miracle of the North Platte Canteen."

(CNN) -- First, I wanted to find out if Lyndon Sanders was still alive. Second, I wanted to find out if he was feeling triumphant.

The answers: Yes, and yes.

"Every time I hear about a hotel that doesn't allow any smoking at all, my heart beats a little bit better," he said.

Sanders, 82, has moved to Fredericksburg, Texas, but 30 years ago, when he had his world-changing idea, he lived in Dallas. That was where he decided he would build and operate a new kind of hotel.

People told him he was nuts when he announced that he was building a hotel in which guests would not be permitted to smoke.
--Bob Greene

He planned to put it up right on the Carpenter Freeway, midway between the big DFW airport and the main Dallas business district. The name of the place said it all:

The Non-Smokers Inn.

"Putting smokers and nonsmokers together is like putting tomcats and bulldogs together," Sanders told me at the time. He said that at another hotel he owned, he had noticed something every time he'd had to steam-clean a room where smokers had stayed:

"The smoke stinks up everything. We have to take the draperies down, shampoo the carpet, strip the beds completely down -- even the plastic shower curtains. You should see the yellow nicotine stains on the cleaning rags. I'll tell you, it would gag a buzzard."

Sanders did indeed open the Non-Smokers Inn -- we'll return to that in a moment -- but the reason I was trying to find him last week was a bit of news that is being reported in 2011.

More and more hotels are going 100% smoke-free, either by choice or in response to local smoking ordinances. Reporter Gary Stoller, writing in USA Today, said that an analysis of data collected by the American Automobile Association found that more than 12,900 lodgings in the U.S. now allow no smoking at all in any of their rooms -- nearly 4,600 more than the figure was in 2008.

Stoller quoted Joe McInerney, president of the American Hotel and Lodging Association: "We will continue to see either properties go entirely smoke-free or increase non-smoking rooms not only in the United States but around the world."

Which brings us back to Lyndon Sanders, who felt quite alone when he came up with his idea. In 1981, after all, cigarette smoking was still allowed just about everywhere, including on passenger airplanes.

Airport smoking lounges: Here to stay?

(Some among you will remember the days when passengers who smoked had their own section of the coach cabin, customarily in the rear, and passengers who didn't smoke had their seats in the front of coach. There was no wall or curtain between them. Before that, smokers and nonsmokers had sat together. It wasn't until April of 1971 that United Press International reported, as breaking news, with a Cleveland, Ohio, dateline: "A United Air Lines jet took off for Miami today with smoking passengers segregated from nonsmokers.")

Thus, when Lyndon Sanders dreamed up his Non-Smokers Inn, he was doing so in a world in which a business traveler could smoke on the plane all the way to Dallas, smoke all during his meal at a Dallas restaurant -- and then be turned away at the front desk of Sanders' hotel.

He didn't care. Smoking, he said, had killed his father, his uncle and 12 close friends. He said at the time that he had refused to let contractors who constructed the hotel use workers who smoked: "If the people who built this place were smoking when they did it, it would stink up the place and we'd never get things right."

In a business sense, he was ahead of his time -- too far ahead. The Non-Smokers Inn did well at first, but by 1991 Sanders had to turn the hotel over to new management, which changed the name to the Classic Motor Inn, and allowed 22 of the 135 rooms to welcome smokers.

It wasn't that the world had turned its back on his idea -- it was that the world had embraced it too thoroughly. Major hotels had started putting in nonsmoking floors, and advertising the fact; people who didn't smoke suddenly had no trouble finding a clean, fresh-smelling room. The Non-Smokers Inn, struggling for business, had to become something else and let smokers in, because the nonsmokers no longer had to look so hard for what they desired.

The American Cancer Society estimates that some 443,000 early deaths each year can be attributed to tobacco use; the federal government is about to require new illustrated warnings on cigarette packages that are far more harrowing and graphic than anything seen before -- a tracheotomy hole in a man's neck; a toe tag attached to a corpse; a man in a coffin.

You might think that Lyndon Sanders would be a little resentful about being too smart too soon. People told him he was nuts when he announced that he was building a hotel in which guests would not be permitted to smoke. One woman wrote him a letter at the time saying she hoped he went bankrupt and that she was sure he was a Communist. He is out of the hotel business now; meanwhile, the hospitality industry is flocking to his idea.

But, he said, at 82 he feels a quiet satisfaction.

"I knew I was right back then," he said. "I know I'm still right now."

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Bob Greene.