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'Fire Safe' Cigarette Bill OKd

The state law aims to cut deaths and injuries from blazes ignited by smoldering tobacco.

October 08, 2005|Myron Levin | Times Staff Writer

A new law requiring that cigarettes sold in California be "fire safe" could build momentum for a national standard aimed at cutting the death toll from smoldering cigarettes, consumer activists said Friday.

The measure, signed Friday by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, copies a trailblazing New York law that has also been adopted by Vermont and took effect last week in Canada.

Cigarette makers have until Jan. 1, 2007, to comply with the law, sponsored by Assemblyman Paul Koretz (D-West Hollywood). It requires that each brand pass a test in which lighted cigarettes are placed on a material similar to furniture fabric to see whether they will go out before igniting a blaze.

Cigarette fires annually kill nearly 800 people in the U.S. and cause scores of disfiguring injuries, according to the National Fire Protection Assn., a nonprofit fire-safety advocacy group based in Quincy, Mass. The group estimates that about a fourth of the victims are innocent bystanders, some of them children, who die in fires started by someone else's cigarette.

There are no reliable figures on smoking-related fire deaths in California, but John R. Hall Jr., an assistant vice president of the association, said the toll might be 70 to 100 people per year, based on California's population and rate of smoking.

Backers of the measure acknowledged that it was not a cure-all, but said it would cut down on cigarette fires.

"I am positive that this will prevent burn deaths and burn injuries," said Andrew McGuire, who runs the Trauma Foundation at San Francisco General Hospital and has been campaigning for such laws since the late 1970s.

Alone among top cigarette makers, R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. opposed the bill; Philip Morris USA and Lorillard Tobacco took no position.

RJR spokesman David Howard said the firm was disappointed about the bill because "legislation of this type probably isn't the best way to address the matter of careless use of cigarettes in possibly causing fires."

Tobacco companies acknowledge that they design cigarettes to go on burning when not being puffed. That spares smokers the annoyance of having to relight, and results in more cigarettes being consumed. But it also means that a cigarette that falls onto bedding or a sofa can smolder unnoticed for as long as 30 minutes before a fire erupts.

Reducing the risk involves placing ultra-thin rings of paper or a starch-like material at intervals around the cigarette wrapper. The bands restrict the flow of oxygen to the burning tip, slowing combustion and reducing heat transferred to fabrics.

Although long resisted by the major tobacco companies, fire-safe cigarette laws could help them in one way. Top cigarette makers have been losing market share to small producers of discount brands. With lower sales volume to absorb the compliance cost, discounters could see their price advantage diminish.

Before the New York law was passed, tobacco companies over two decades had swatted down a flurry of fire-safe cigarette bills in Congress and several states, including California. The industry's main concern now is not defeating such laws but avoiding the chaos of different requirements from state to state.

California, like Vermont and Canada, adopted the same compliance test as New York. Bills pending in Congress also would use the New York test but give states leeway to impose their own standards.

Jennifer Golisch, a Philip Morris spokeswoman, said the firm would support a federal law, but only if it barred states from setting their own rules.

With laws now on the books in three states with 20% of the U.S. population, Koretz, the California bill's sponsor, said he thought the campaign had hit "critical mass." Tobacco firms could voluntarily produce fire-safe cigarettes for the whole country, "or the Congress will take this up and finally pass it," he said.

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