'Fire-Safe' Cigarettes Withheld From Consumers
THURSDAY, July 1 (HealthScout) -- Concealing research on the addictive powers of nicotine may not have been the only information the tobacco industry has been hiding. According to the latest issue of a newsletter that follows the tobacco business, New Yor
Every year, roughly 1,000 Americans die in fires caused by cigarettes; another 4,000 are injured. One-third of the victims are children. Cigarette fires also cause $4 billion in property damage per year in the United States alone. So, why can't Americans buy a product that could prevent the loss of property and lives?
Tobacco companies say that experimental models of fire-safe cigarettes -- meaning a cigarette that is less likely to ignite flammable furniture or mattress material -- either don't work, or aren't pleasant to smoke. One of America's largest tobacco companies, R.J. Reynolds, issued a statement to HealthScout saying that "experimental cigarettes have not performed well in consumer testing (primarily due to differences in taste and burning characteristics)."
But Andrew McGuire, the author of the Tobacco Control report, doesn't buy that argument. He believes that tobacco companies fear marketing such a cigarette will leave them vulnerable to lawsuits resulting from property loss, injury or death from fires caused by regular cigarettes.
McGuire sat on a technical study group mandated by the federal 1984 Safe Cigarette Act, along with representatives from several tobacco companies, the National Cancer Institute, the American Medical Association and the International Association of Fire Chiefs. The group reported to Congress that it was technologically and economically feasible to produce a fire-safe cigarette.
Before 1982, researchers assumed that the only way for a cigarette to be "fire-safe" was to design it to self-extinguish if left unattended. But when tobacco companies like R.J. Reynolds and Philip Morris supplied the study group with their experimental fire-safe cigarettes, the products burned down to their filter tip without setting the government laboratory's mock furniture on fire.
Here's how they work: To make low-tar cigarettes, tobacco manufacturers freeze-dry shredded tobacco before it's rolled into the cigarette paper. Freeze-drying makes the tobacco puff up -- think of puffed rice -- reducing the density of tobacco in the cigarette. (In fact, it's actually cheaper for tobacco companies to make these cigarettes, because less tobacco is used.
At the same time, the paper is less porous than normal paper, with smaller and fewer holes. This doesn't allow as much oxygen to reach the smoldering tobacco, forcing the cigarette to burn at a lower temperature. The end result is a fire-safe cigarette that doesn't produce enough heat to ignite a flammable surface, even if it falls onto your living room sofa and burns to ashes.
Was such a product commercially viable? McGuire says that Philip Morris began work on a fire-safe cigarette as early as 1980, under the code name "Project Hamlet." In 1987, unmarked packages of the product were sent to taste-testers, who couldn't tell the difference between fire-safe cigarettes and regular Marlboros.
McGuire says there are two main reasons why fire-safe cigarettes are not on the market. "Number one: They don't like to be told what to do by government, period," he says. The tobacco industry doesn't have to answer to any regulatory agency, and they don't want that to change.
"Number two, they're afraid of how to negotiate and wind their way through the hazardous terrain of product liability suits," says McGuire. For example, he asks, if a child was burned four years ago by a Marlboro that wasn't fire-safe, how would it look to a jury of 12 people if lawyers revealed that the tobacco company knew how to make fire-safe cigarettes before the child was burned?
"It's going to be slam-dunk, automatic multi-million dollar suits. They see that happening immediately, so what they want to do is postpone what's going on by claiming that it's technologically not possible."
But tobacco companies insist that are problems. "We've test-marketed cigarettes that primarily heat tobacco instead of burning it, and those cigarettes are probably less likely to ignite upholstered furniture. But that type of cigarette has not been widely accepted by smokers," says R.J. Reynolds' spokesperson Jan Smith. "If you're producing a cigarette that heats rather than burns tobacco, it is different in terms of how it smokes and how it tastes."
In 1993, a technical study group chaired by Richard Gann, the chief of the National Institute of Standards and Technology's Fire Science division, reported to Congress it had developed a standardized method for testing fire-safe cigarettes. But tobacco companies found fault with the test design.
"Those tests that people can tout as showing which cigarettes are fire-safe and which are not, are not done under real-world conditions," says Smith. "The fabrics that are used in those tests are not the fabrics that anyone uses on upholstery in their home." (For the record, the test furniture was made of cotton duck fabric over polyurethane foam.)
At least one expert agrees that fire-safe cigarettes aren't the only factor involved in fire safety. "From my perspective, one of the principles of injury control in general is that there are a wide variety of factors that come into play with any significant injury or problem," says Dr. Jeffrey Botkin, a professor of pediatrics at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City. Botkin wrote a 1988 review of fire-safe cigarettes for the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA). "Better furniture manufacturing is important, smoke detectors in homes are important, and I think fire-safe cigarettes may well be important, too."
Jeffrey Wigand knows fire-safe cigarettes and the tobacco industry from the inside out. In 1989, he was recruited as vice president of research and development for Brown & Williamson Tobacco Corp., of Louisville, Ky. His primary task was supposed to be the development of a safer cigarette, which at the time primarily meant a biologically safer cigarette with lower levels of tar and nicotine. But this also included a project begun before Wigand was hired -- to make a fire-safe cigarette.
Brown & Williamson never succeeded, says Wigand, but other tobacco companies did, yet they didn't share the knowledge with each other or the government. "Brown and Williamson clearly did not have the technology [in 1985 and 1986] that Philip Morris had, but Philip Morris was supposed to be sharing this work collaboratively to address the issue of fire safety," Wigand says.
Sharing trade secrets that represented a potential threat to the tobacco industry was not a priority, according to Wigand. He was fired from Brown and Williamson in March 1993, after expressing disapproval over a potentially cancer-causing product additive in pipe tobacco. Six months later, he was sued by Brown and Williamson for allegedly violating his secrecy agreement. The case was closed after he signed a more restrictive agreement. But since then, he has become the biggest whistleblower in the history of American tobacco industry.
Those six years have been a legal nightmare for Wigand. He's been sued twice by Brown & Williamson, subpoenaed to testify before the Department of Justice about tobacco and health issues, and has made a lot of enemies in the tobacco industry. He has received death threats against his children, and for several months his family was protected by armed guards.
"The industry has said for so many years that there is no such thing as a [fire-safe] cigarette," says Wigand. "Now, all of a sudden, [they] have a 'safer' cigarette. That presents a very large legal conundrum for them, that opens Pandora's box, so to speak, for litigation against a defective product."
Botkin agrees. "My understanding was that you could design a cigarette that would not develop a sufficient amount of heat to ignite upholstery," he says. "Given the fact that it's technically feasible to make a safer product, there may be liability there already."
Since 1979, there have been three failed attempts to pass federal legislation that would give the Consumer Product Safety Commission the power to regulate cigarettes as fire hazards. In April, U.S. Rep. Joe Moakley, D-Mass., decided to try again. If the bill passes, fire-safe cigarettes would have to be on the market within 18 months. McGuire is enlisting the support of fire chiefs, burn specialists and burn victims to help lobby the bill through Congress; their goal is to get it passed next year.
"It's pretty easy to be skeptical about this," says Botkin. "The tobacco companies have had a fair amount of influence in Congress."
Wigand isn't optimistic about the bill's chances. "Their ways of derailing the system is that they influence congressmen through lobbying, they create false images, such as 'fire-safe cigarettes will be unsmokeable, there's no testing [method], it's the upholstery people's problem.' They do everything possible to de-focus the issue [away from the tobacco industry]."
But Brendan McCormick, a spokesperson for Philip Morris, denies all the charges. "We're continuing to conduct research on ways to reduce the ignition propensity of cigarettes, and it's our goal to develop, consumer-test and market a commercially acceptable cigarette with reduced ignition propensity," he says.
"Cigarettes must be lit and burned to be used. As a result, no standards for cigarette fire safety can replace the need for the exercise of good common sense and individual responsibility," McCormick adds.
Wigand, a former tobacco executive himself, knows of those consequences as well as anyone. But he's not optimistic that the tobacco industry will launch a product that suggests they knowingly market cigarettes that could make them vulnerable to litigation.
"If the [tobacco] companies wanted to work collaboratively between themselves, the government and the outside industry, in an effort to reduce the ignition propensity of cigarettes, and shared technology, we would have had fire-safe cigarettes in the '80s," says Wigand. Had that come to pass, it might have helped R.J. Reynolds President Andrew J. Schindler. In 1997, the tobacco executive lost his North Carolina vacation home to a fire, which was later blamed on a smoldering cigarette butt.
What To Do: For more information on fire-safe cigarettes, you can contact TobaccoResolution.com, a site run by the U.S. tobacco industry or the Tobacco Control Web site and click on Web-Watch Links. For fire safety tips, check out the Web site for the Burn Prevention Foundation, and don't forget to visit the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Tobacco Information and Prevention Source.