Stateline Story

Fire-safe cigarette laws spread quickly

  • August 01, 2007
Cigarettes sold in 21 states will be self-extinguishing after a strikingly high 15 states passed new laws this year to combat smoking-related blazes, the No. 1 cause of home-fire deaths.

"Fire-safe" cigarettes, manufactured with extra bands of paper to snuff the flame if a lighted cigarette isn't being smoked, even received unanimous approval in the tobacco stronghold of Kentucky .

In 2004, New York became the first state to require self-extinguishing cigarettes, which also are on the shelves now in California, Vermont and, as of July 1, Oregon. Seventeen more states will require them soon, with most laws taking effect in 2008 or 2009.

Even advocates of the legislation were startled by its swift progress this year.

"No one really even had to testify" before the legislature, said Richard Peddicord, assistant state fire marshal for Kentucky, where a nation-high 28.6 percent of adults smoke, according to the Centers For Disease Control and Prevention .

After years of failing to get fire-safe cigarette legislation through Congress, advocates turned to the states, forming the Coalition for Fire-Safe Cigarettes and enlisting the aid of firefighters and local officials.

"Previously, the tobacco companies had been able to derail any federal attempts to pass this legislation. So we decided to go to the states, and the coalition has done that very effectively," said Lorraine Carli, a spokeswoman for the National Fire Protection Association , a nonprofit advocacy group based in Massachusetts that formed the coalition.

The coalition provided background, such as model legislation and a testing standard, and staged public events to generate publicity. From there, local advocates pressed lawmakers.

"Firefighters and fire-safety people have an entrepreneurial style about them. All it takes is one or two guys to make something happen," said Dick Gann, head of the National Institute of Standards and Technology's Fire Research Division . "It's no surprise that you start to get this nonlinear, exponential expansion of grassroots movement."

Each state has used the standard established by New York. Kentucky's push this year was driven in large part by a Feb. 6 home fire in Bardstown that killed 10 and was believed to have started when a smoker feel asleep with a lighted cigarette.

According to the fire-safety advocacy group, smoking-related fires kill 700 to 900 people and cause hundreds of millions of dollars in property losses each year.

A study of New York's experience with self-extinguishing cigarettes by the Harvard School of Public Health found that they were far more likely to go out if left unattended and that there had been no change in the price of cigarettes and no decrease in tax revenue from cigarettes.

Most of this year's laws give cigarettes companies a year or more to alter their manufacturing process and to allow stores to liquidate their supply of the old cigarettes and make sure all cigarettes they stock meet the fire-safe standards.

In the past, cigarette companies have lobbied against federal legislation, but spokesmen now say the industry prefers a federal standard to differing state-by-state standards. David Howard, a spokesman for R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company , said the company had lobbied against federal legislation previously because it failed to prohibit states from establishing more rigid standards.

The level of opposition to state laws varies by company. Howard said R.J. Reynolds has opposed state legislation. But Bill Phelps, a spokesman for Philip Morris USA , said, "We still think that a nationwide standard would be best, but we do not oppose state legislation that would establish the same standard as in New York."

One of tobacco companies' beefs with fire-safe cigarettes is that they may instill "a false sense of security in consumers who may erroneously believe that they can carelessly handle cigarettes without concern for starting a fire," according to a position statement on R.J. Reynolds' Web site.

"Calling it 'fire-safe' is misleading," said Howard of R. J. Reynolds. The real problem is "the careless handling of cigarettes," and "we don't believe the legislation addresses the real problem," he said.

The Massachusetts-based fire-safety group has called that assertion insulting to consumers.

Fire-safety experts say that smokers should not notice any difference in taste with the new cigarettes, which many tobacco companies prefer to call Reduced Ignition Propensity (ironically, RIP) cigarettes, and that the health risks - other than the risk of fire - remain the same.

Fire-safe cigarette technology has existed for years, and the U.S. Senate considered requiring self-extinguishing cigarettes as early as 1974, according to the Massachusetts fire-safety group.

In 2000, Philip Morris began using banding technology in its Merit brand cigarettes. In 2004, the company was sued by the U.S. Department of Justice and accused of covering up its knowledge that the Merit cigarettes, which used a different design from current fire-safe cigarettes, were actually more fire-prone. Philip Morris has acknowledged that the Merit cigarettes would not have met the New York standard. The company still sells Merit cigarettes, using an altered design in states that follow New York's testing standard.

The six states that passed legislation requiring self-extinguishing cigarettes before this year are California, Illinois, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York and Vermont. These states enacted laws this year: Alaska, Connecticut, Delaware, Iowa, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maine, Maryland, Minnesota, Montana, New Jersey, Oregon, Rhode Island, Texas and Utah.