Fire Standard Sought for Cigarettes
WASHINGTON â€“â€“ The nation's largest tobacco company now says all cigarettes should be manufactured so they extinguish themselves if smokers don't stamp them out.
Philip Morris Inc. has joined health and safety advocates in backing legislation scheduled to be introduced in Congress Thursday that would establish a national fire-safety standard for cigarettes. The aim is to reduce the hundreds of deaths each year in the United States from smoking-related fires.
Philip Morris is the only U.S. company now making self-extinguishing cigarettes. But a key reason for the company's new support of a federal requirement has to do with a New York law saying only self-extinguishing cigarettes may be sold in that state starting next year.
Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Jersey and Rhode Island are considering taking similar steps, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Approval in those states could lead to a production and distribution nightmare, said Mark Berlind, associate general counsel for Philip Morris Management Corp.
"We would have to make different products for different states, theoretically," Berlind said. "That's the scenario that we hope to avoid."
Every year approximately 900 Americans die, 2,500 are injured and $400 million in damages are caused by fires started by cigarettes, according to the American Burn Association and the federal government. In many cases, smokers fall asleep and their cigarette drops onto something flammable, such as clothing, furniture or paper.
Firefighter and fire safety groups for years have sought a government requirement that tobacco companies produce self-extinguishing cigarettes. Tobacco companies, a powerful lobby on Capitol Hill, opposed the idea and Congress only required that the issue be studied.
Critics have said tobacco companies were resistant for economic reasons. Cigarettes that stay lighted burn more quickly, meaning smokers go through more of them.
The legislation scheduled to be introduced Thursday by Sens. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., and Sam Brownback, R-Kan., and Rep. Edward Markey, D-Mass., would require tobacco companies to produce only "fire safe" cigarettes that would have to meet guidelines established by the Consumer Product Safety Commission.
"The tobacco industry spends billions each year on marketing and learning how to make cigarettes appealing to kids," Durbin said. "It's not unreasonable to ask these same companies to invest in research to find ways to make their products less likely to burn down a house."
Berlind said Philip Morris supports the bill, but the company and other cigarette makers oppose a provision allowing states to enact tougher standards than the federal government.
"One of our concerns is that if it's going to be a federal law it ought to pre-empt everything at the state level just to make it uniform," said Mark Smith, a spokesman for Brown & Williamson Tobacco Corp.
Philip Morris is the only U.S. tobacco company selling self-extinguishing cigarettes. About two years ago, it began making its Merit brand with rings of ultra-thin paper that are applied on top of traditional cigarette paper. The rings act as "speed bumps" to slow down the rate at which the cigarette burns. Cigarettes made this way are more likely than others to go out on their own if left unattended.
Anti-smoking groups have not expressed concerns to lawmakers that the slower-burning cigarettes might increase the number of puffs a smoker takes, thereby raising the amount of tar and nicotine inhaled.
But some smokers don't like the cigarettes, saying they're inconvenient.
"People are calling us and saying, 'Hey, my cigarette is going out and I don't like it,'" Philip Morris spokesman Brendan McCormick said.
The late Rep. Joe Moakley, D-Mass., who died last year, tried for two decades to get legislation through Congress that would cut down on fires started by cigarettes. The bills being introduced now are named for him.