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Controversy Heats Up Over Safer Smokes

October 20, 1987|MYRON LEVIN | Times Staff Writer and Myron Levin is studying the tobacco industry under a fellowship from the Alicia Patterson Foundation

Not long after saying good night to the last dinner guest, the Mitchell family was dead.

Billie Mitchell, 33, was a nonsmoker; his wife Kathi, 27, smoked occasionally. A guest in their Taft, Calif., home may have dropped the cigarette, or maybe it rolled off an ashtray down a crack in the sofa that night in August, 1985. Apparently it smoldered as the household slept, finally starting the fire that killed the couple, their two young children and a visiting cousin.

Bob Calvin, Billie Mitchell's friend and boss at a local trucking firm, was called the next morning to help identify the bodies.

"After the tears," Calvin said, "I got sick."

Toll From Cigarette Fires

He had been through it before. During his childhood in Oregon, Calvin recalled, his two young cousins died and the third was horribly disfigured by a furniture fire from a cigarette dropped at a party.

According to the U.S. surgeon general, cigarette smoking is the country's leading cause of avoidable deaths, claiming more than 300,000 lives a year from cancer and other diseases. What's less well-known is that cigarettes also start more fatal fires than any other ignition source, causing about 30% of all fire deaths in this country, according to government studies.

Along with 1,500 to 2,000 deaths per year, cigarette fires are estimated to cause at least 6,000 injuries per year and $400 million in property loss, according to a study by the National Fire Protection Assn.

None for Cigarettes

While there are government safety standards for many items that cigarettes burn, there are none for cigarettes.

That could change after a federal cigarette safety panel, known as the Technical Study Group, makes its final report this fall. The study group, set up by Congress three years ago, has found that certain physical changes--such as looser-packed tobacco--allow a cigarette to go on burning with less chance of starting a fire.

The findings are sure to renew the push in Congress and state legislatures for a fire-resistance standard for cigarettes.

But the industry, which says carelessness is the real issue, plans to be ready. During the last four years, it has built a bridge--really more of a superhighway--to the group most involved in fire safety issues.

In a unique and savvy lobbying campaign, the Tobacco Institute--the political arm of the industry--has provided millions of dollars to fire departments and state and national fire safety groups to develop educational materials and run community fire prevention programs.

The tactic has proved successful. "Between you and me, five years ago I wouldn't even sit in the same room with people from the Tobacco Institute," said a former official of a major fire group. According to the institute's bean count--revealed in an internal memo in mid-1986--the institute was "68% toward our goal of 200 working relationships within the fire community."

The industry got involved in fire prevention when cigarette legislation started gathering steam. In 1979, after a cigarette fire in his district killed a family of seven, Rep. Joe Moakley (D-Mass.) introduced a bill to require that cigarettes be made to self-extinguish five minutes after left unattended.

The next year, Moakley and Sen. Alan Cranston (D-Calif.), took a different tack, filing bills directing the Consumer Product Safety Commission to come up with a fire resistance standard, or to inform Congress if it found this technically unfeasible.

The safety commission has jurisdiction over about 15,000 products. In the area of fire safety, it has ignition standards for children's sleepwear, mattresses, carpeting and rugs; and it was responsible for a voluntary standard adopted by the upholstered furniture industry.

But the commission lacks jurisdiction over cigarettes. In 1972, when the commission was created--and again in 1976--Congress specifically barred it from scrutinizing "tobacco or tobacco products," even though no other agency had that authority.

Americans spent $30 billion a year on cigarettes, and the industry fears any change in cigarette appearance or taste that might affect sales. Although leery of saying so, the industry also is nervous about product liability claims from cigarette fires.

A few such suits have been filed over cigarette fires, and none has been successful. But some legal experts and others believe that a sympathetic plaintiff--such as a burned child--will eventually prevail against the brand linked to a fire, touching off an avalanche of claims.

The industry would be all the more vulnerable if it were shown "that there is a technology for a fire-safe cigarette," said a former staff member of the Tobacco Institute who would not speak for attribution. "To them, that's a very, very scary issue."

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