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Tobacco Retailer Accused of Selling Unsafe Lighters

Safety: Sting by regulators leads to civil suit against nation's largest cigarette discounter.

May 28, 1999|ROBIN FIELDS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Federal product-safety regulators on Thursday accused Benicia-based Cigarettes Cheaper!, the nation's largest discount cigarette retailer, of selling unsafe disposable lighters.

In an undercover sting last month, U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission agents purchased lighters at Cigarettes Cheaper! outlets in Santa Ana, Westwood, Redondo Beach and other California locations, asking for models that were "easy to use."

They were sold lighters without legally mandated child-resistant mechanisms, regulators said.

Company clerks also volunteered to disable safety tabs, the agency reported.

Company executives dispute their stores sold lighters without child-safety mechanisms, saying they bought the products from a company with an exemplary record.

"We're confident in their compliance," said Matt Graham, Cigarettes Cheaper!'s attorney.

"Their employees were violating the law and we caught them," said Alan Schoem, the CPSC's director of compliance.

Under the terms of a permanent injunction filed in U.S. District Court, Cigarettes Cheaper! agreed to stop selling lighters that do not meet federal standards and to instruct its employees not to tamper with safety switches.

Although the company has agreed to reform its practices, the government has filed a civil lawsuit seeking as much as $1.5 million in penalties.

Since the sting, company executives have circulated memos instructing employees not to remove lighters' child-safety gadgets or show how to disable them, even if they are asked to do so.

"You would hate to hear of a case of a kid getting burned or a building burning down," said Ned Roscoe, the company's president. "When customers ask, we've told [clerks] they can't discuss it. We told them not to complain or commiserate with customers about the regulations."

The case is the first of its kind filed against a company for violating 1994 federal safety standards for lighters, commission officials said.

Cigarettes Cheaper! has dozens of Southland stores, some under the name Premium Tobacco.

This is not the chain's first run-in with the CPSC. In 1996, the agency accused the company of purchasing 184,000 lighters without appropriate child-safety features.

The chain pulled the lighters from its shelves, but refused to pay a fine, maintaining the products were manufactured before federal safety standards were in place. That litigation is still pending.

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The current case started when a competitor filed a complaint against Cigarettes Cheaper! with the CPSC, an agency compliance officer said.

"It was scary to think they were doing it again," said Melissa Hampshire, a CPSC attorney.

Cigarettes Cheaper! has 442 stores nationwide, including about 230 in California.

Most are cigarette outlets tucked into mini-malls, selling smokes for about $1 a pack less than other retailers. The company's 11 Supercheaper! grocery stores are larger and sell basics such as milk and eggs at steep discounts.

The company is as well-known for its outspoken stances against taxes and government regulation--often articulated in essays printed on its shopping bags--as for its prices. Simon & Schuster printed a book of the shopping-bag screeds under the title "Bagatorials."

Company executives do not think, however, that their views either prompted their employees to flout the laws governing lighters or drew the CPSC's attention.

"Is it because we're the nail that stands up that we get hammered down? Not particularly," Roscoe said. "They've got to make sure the policy is followed, and going after someone with a high profile makes sense."

Between 650 million and 750 million disposable lighters are sold in the United States each year.

The CPSC and the U.S. Customs Service seize or recall several million lighters each year because they do not meet child-resistance standards.

Many of the noncompliant lighters are imported from China, CPSC officials said.

To meet federal standards, lighters typically have switches, tabs or buttons meant to hinder children's ability to operate them. Newer models have smooth wheels that require more pressure to light than most children can muster.

Before the government enacted safety standards, the agency estimated that 190 deaths and 7,250 fires a year resulted from children under 5 years old playing with lighters.

A study is underway to determine how much the 1994 standards have reduced those numbers, the CPSC said.

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