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California and the West

Bill to Boost Fire Safety in Cigarettes Dies

August 22, 2000|MIGUEL BUSTILLO | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SACRAMENTO — Tobacco companies easily killed state legislation Monday that would have imposed a fire-safety standard on cigarettes, the nation's leading cause of fire deaths.

New York recently became the first state in the nation to pass such legislation, ending more than two decades in which the tobacco lobby successfully torpedoed all efforts to force it to sell cigarettes that burn cooler or go out faster.

State Sen. Adam Schiff (D-Burbank) sought to build on that momentum and do the same in California, arguing that if the two largest states did so, they would force the tobacco companies to establish a new national fire-safety standard.

But his bill, SB 2070, was easily killed in the Assembly's Governmental Organization Committee, garnering just two of the 10 votes needed for passage.

Tobacco lawyers, in-house scientists and fire experts, all paid by the companies, argued that cigarette makers still have not been able to develop a fire-safe cigarette that does not increase health risks to smokers or taste bad.

"You could pass a bill requiring cars to be built like tanks," said James A. Goold, an attorney representing R.J. Reynolds. "But no one would buy them."

And some members of the committee, traditionally known as a tough place to pass bills unfavorable to liquor, gambling and tobacco interests, openly professed their suspicion of any legislation supported by anti-smoking groups.

"Some of these anti-smoking people are very diabolical, very devious," said Assemblyman Brett Granlund (R-Yucaipa).

Like the New York legislation, which was signed into law last week by Gov. George Pataki, Schiff's bill would have required the state fire marshal to devise a flammability standard for cigarettes, then would have forced tobacco companies to meet the standard to sell their product here.

"These fires, many of them could be prevented by a technology that already exists," Schiff said. "There are a lot of people losing their lives for no good reason."

As proof tobacco companies could make more fire-safe cigarettes if they wanted, Schiff cited Philip Morris, the nation's largest tobacco company.

After years of denying it could engineer a safer cigarette, Philip Morris broke from the industry pack this year and began selling a special type of Merit cigarette.

The company has test-marketed its special cigarettes, which use a form of paper that contains "speed bumps" to snuff out the cigarettes when they are not being puffed, and announced plans to go nationwide with them this fall.

But Philip Morris representatives stayed out of the hearing, arguing that a federal fire-safety standard should be established rather than a collage of state regulations. And representatives of other tobacco companies made their presence felt, poking holes in the argument that the Philip Morris cigarette represented a safety advance at all.

Several opponents even argued the bill would hurt California's tax base, forcing smokers to go out of state for their favorite brands. And some lawmakers said that by placing a burning object in their hand, smokers, like boxers or football players, should expect that bad things could happen to them.

"Football players should expect to be injured, boxers should expect to be hit," Schiff cracked to committee members before the vote as the outcome became clear, "and I should expect to get beat up taking a tobacco bill into the [Governmental Organization] Committee."

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