Philip Morris Says It Has a Safer Paper
The Philip Morris Companies is expected to announce today that it has developed technology that might reduce the number of fires started by cigarettes, a move that comes more than a decade after lawmakers and fire safety experts said the tobacco industry
The company plans to test market the new paper in Merit cigarettes, one of its smaller brands, and, if it proves successful, could expand its use to Marlboro, the nation's leading cigarette.
Cigarette makers have long faced calls to reduce the propensity of cigarettes to start fires, because about 25 percent of fatal residential fires start when a smoker falls asleep in bed or a lighted cigarette is dropped on a couch or chair. In 1997 about 900 people, including 140 children, were killed in such fires, according to the most recent figures from the federal Consumer Product Safety Commission.
In an interview yesterday, Philip Morris officials said the new technology involved placing thin layers of extra paper at points along a cigarette. The rings of paper reduce the amount of oxygen entering the cigarette, slowing down the rate at which it burns and the heat it generates, the officials said.
"The paper rings act like speed bumps" to slow down a burning cigarette, said John Nelson, the company's senior vice president for operations.
Company officials said initial tests had shown that cigarettes using the new paper did not taste different, burn differently when puffed or present any added health risks.
In interviews yesterday, several lawmakers, regulators and fire-safety experts said that although they welcomed the development, it was long overdue.
They said Philip Morris's own documents showed that the company had conducted extensive research in the mid-1980's to develop a so-called fire-safe cigarette, even producing samples that it said were "acceptable to consumers." The company dropped the project, however, saying it was not commercially feasible.
Ever since, Philip Morris and other cigarette makers have battled efforts to legally require that cigarettes be made less likely to cause fires. They also challenged efforts by government scientists in the late 1980's to begin a system to measure the fire propensity of different brands and argued that flammable upholstery fabrics were the real problem with residential fires.
Andrew McGuire, the executive director of the Trauma Foundation, a group in San Francisco that has long advocated for fire-safe cigarettes, said the move by Philip Morris had to be weighed against all the lives that had been lost over the last decade in cigarette-related fires.
"I find this all disingenuous, to say the least," Mr. McGuire said.
"It is nice that they have done it. It is tragic that all those had to die in the meantime."
Representative Joe Moakley, Democrat of Massachusetts, said that since 1979, when a house fire killed a family in his district, he had been trying to get legislation passed to improve the fire safety of cigarettes.
"I always believed that a company that makes this torch should be responsible for its final destiny," Mr. Moakley said.
Cliff Lilly, Philip Morris's vice president for technology, said that around 1988, company researchers developed the idea for the banded paper used in the new cigarettes.
Since then, Mr. Lilly said, the company has been working to determine whether the idea was feasible in large-scale production.
Cigarette paper is produced on presses that generate enough paper in one minute to make 310,000 cigarettes. And the process of applying thin, evenly spaced lines of added material across cigarette paper as those presses are running is extremely complex, Mr. Lilly said.
Philip Morris officials said the propensity of the new cigarettes to start fires varied with the fabric tested. However, in one test developed by the National Institute of Standards and Technology, cigarettes using the new paper ignited a thick cotton canvas 4 times in 96 tries, Mr. Lilly said. In contrast, a standard cigarette ignited the cotton material in 70 of 96 trials.
One hurdle for the technology is that the new paper will at times cause the cigarette to extinguish.
Philip Morris officials said they had met last week with officials of the Consumer Product Safety Commission to discuss the new technology.
The commission participated in two large studies of fire-safe cigarettes in the last two decades, including a 1987 review that found that such products were technically and economically feasible.
Five cigarette brands have already met fire-safety criteria established by government researchers: More, Virginia Slims, Capri Light and Eve Lights. Most are filtered, small-diameter cigarettes, which among other things are less densely packed with tobacco than standard cigarettes.
Ann Brown, the commission's chairwoman, said Philip Morris executives had visited the agency last week. She said they spoke only generally about their decision to test market the new technology and did not share technical data.
"We don't know if the cigarette made by Philip Morris will really work," Ms. Brown said.
"These claims need to be independently evaluated to determine whether the cigarette does what the company says it does."
Company officials said they planned to start test marketing Merit cigarettes using the new paper in cities including Buffalo, Denver and Hartford. They declined to say when the paper would be used in all Merit cigarettes or expanded to other company brands.