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Tobacco Companies Attack Fire Safety Bill

Capitol: Assembly committee likely could kill legislation that would make cigarettes less flammable.

August 21, 2000|MIGUEL BUSTILLO | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SACRAMENTO — Legislation to impose fire safety standards on cigarettes, the nation's leading cause of fire deaths, is facing a blitz from tobacco companies in the Capitol and may be killed today in an Assembly committee.

New York recently became the first state to pass a law requiring cigarette makers to meet flammability standards. That ended more than two decades in which tobacco interests fought back measures in Washington and statehouses across the country requiring that cigarettes be redesigned so they burn cooler or go out faster when not being puffed.

The California bill by state Sen. Adam Schiff (D-Burbank) mirrors the New York legislation, which was signed into law by Gov. George Pataki last week. Like the New York measure, the Schiff bill would authorize the state fire marshal to develop a flammability standard for cigarettes by 2002, and then require cigarette makers to meet that standard to sell their product here.

Cigarette fires kill 1,000 Americans a year, accounting for one in four fire deaths, according to government statistics. Typically, they begin when smokers allow burning cigarettes to roll off ashtrays or out of their fingers and fall behind beds or sofas, where they smolder and eventually spark a blaze.

This year, tobacco giant Philip Morris, after years of denying that it had the technology to produce safer cigarettes, abandoned the industry pack and began selling a less flammable design of its Merit brand.

Other tobacco firms, however, say they lack a way of making more fire-safe cigarettes economically without affecting quality, and they are fighting the Schiff measure.

"Reynolds Tobacco takes this issue seriously and has conducted decades of testing to design cigarettes that are less likely to start accidental fires," R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. said in a prepared statement. "To date, RJRT has not been able to produce a 'fire-safe' cigarette that smokers find acceptable."

Tobacco companies, including Philip Morris, also contend that a federal fire safety standard should be established, not a hodgepodge of contradictory state regulations.

Though they recently announced plans to ship the retooled Merit cigarettes nationwide after positive customer feedback, Philip Morris officials said they are far from ready to apply its new "PaperSelect" technology to more popular brands. The cigarette paper contains ultra-thin rings of added paper that act as speed bumps, slowing the cigarette's burn rate.

"There is no such thing as a fire-safe cigarette. These are objects that are lit on fire," said company spokesman Tom Ryan. "We hope this technology will meet or exceed any standard that is developed. . . . But it would be impossible for us to do something like this on Marlboro at this time."

Numerous California fire chiefs and safety groups support Schiff's legislation.

The senator conceded that his bill, which easily cleared the Senate, is facing long odds in the Assembly.

"They're sending out their Covington & Burling lawyers to influence" lawmakers, Schiff said, referring to one of the tobacco industry's favorite Washington, D.C., law firms. "I think it's going to be an uphill battle."

The bill, SB 2070, took weeks to get out of the Assembly Rules Committee, the clearinghouse that sends legislation to policy committees.

It is scheduled to be heard today in the Governmental Organization Committee, which traditionally has been less than tough on gambling, tobacco and liquor interests. One of the Legislature's "juice committees," members historically have been among the largest recipients of campaign contributions from the tobacco industry. One committee member, Assemblyman Mike Machado (D-Linden), received $30,000 from Philip Morris in the first half of this year, campaign finance records show.

"If the anti-smoking people say it, I assume it is a lie," said another committee member, Assemblyman Brett Granlund (R-Yucaipa), summing up his attitude on anti-tobacco legislation. "I have never found them to tell the truth."

Schiff, who is running for Congress this fall, vowed to fight efforts to water down his bill by turning it into a study, a favorite tactic of lawmakers wary of casting controversial votes to kill legislation. The issue, he said, has been studied to death.

"It's an opportunity to save a lot of lives with very little effort or expense," Schiff said. "If this is preventable, why don't we prevent it? If this were any other product, there would be a safety standard already."

Since 1979, when a family of seven from his area perished in a fire sparked by a cigarette, U.S. Rep. Joseph Moakley (D-Mass.) has unsuccessfully pushed legislation to require tougher fire standards for cigarettes. He is trying again this year.

Congress has voted twice to study the issue, in 1984 and 1990. Both times, Richard Gann, the chief fire scientist at the National Institute for Standards and Technology, part of the Commerce Department, chaired the study committees.

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