Andrew McGuire, “the father of fire-safe cigarettes,” talks about the wrap-up of the highly successful NFPA campaign—and about taking the fight to Europe and China
NFPA Journal, May/June 2010
In March, Wyoming Governor Dave Freudenthal signed legislation requiring all cigarettes sold in the state to meet fire-safety standards as of July 2011. Freudenthal’s signature made Wyoming the 50th state to pass legislation aimed at reducing the number of cigarette fires and fire fatalities, which was the goal of NFPA’s Coalition for Fire-Safe Cigarettes when it was launched in 2006. That effort has resulted in fire-safe cigarette laws taking effect in 43 states; by next July, those laws will be in place in every state in the country.
Andrew McGuire has been a key player in Coalition efforts and has advocated for fire-safe cigarettes for decades. McGuire, 64, co-founder of the Trauma Foundation at San Francisco General Hospital in 1981, has helped lead campaigns championing fire-safe cigarette technology and many other public-safety initiatives since the 1970s, including seatbelt and motorcycle helmet laws, the production of flame-resistant children’s pajamas, and bans on cheap handguns. Convincing states of the life-safety benefits of self-extinguishing cigarette technology has been a long and difficult task, McGuire says, but the effort has paid off.
McGuire recently spoke with NFPA Journal about the fire-safe cigarette campaign, his career highlights, and future projects.
Did you think you’d see fire-safe cigarette laws adopted nationwide in your lifetime?
When I started, a lot of people said to me, “You’re crazy. It’ll never happen.” In order to do this kind of work, you need to be a little bit crazed and optimistic. You need to learn that when you come up against a wall, you go around it and deal with it. At the very beginning, people would ask me how long I thought it would take. In the late ’70s and early ’80s, I said it probably would take about 10 years. As I got closer to that 10-year mark, I said it’s going to be another 10 years. [laughs]
Did you ever lose hope? What kept you in the game?
There were major victories along the way, like the fire-safe cigarette research bill that Congress passed in 1984. That was the first effort in the history of the United States where legislation was passed that the tobacco industry didn’t want.
You have first-hand experience with fire: You suffered a burn injury when you were 7 years old. What happened?
It happened on my birthday in 1952. I went into the kitchen and stood next to the stove. The oven door didn’t come down but opened sideways, like a house door. I backed up to the oven to get warm, since it was winter, and the hem of my cotton bathrobe was even with the oven flame, and it caught the back of my robe on fire. I freaked out and ran into the living room. My father came running out of the bedroom and put it out. I ended up spending four different admissions in the hospital for skin grafts, mostly on my legs.
You were living in Boston in the early 1970s, planning an apprenticeship with a harpsichord maker. How did you get from there to creating the Trauma Foundation? Did the incident when you were a child play a part in that?
I never planned to get involved in this arena whatsoever. My wife read The Boston Globe one morning. There was an article of a girl in the burn unit at Shriners Burn Institute in Boston, who had been burned in her pajamas. The article first discussed how this girl was burned, and then how her mother started talking with other mothers at Shriners and found out there were other kids burned in their pajamas. They started doing some research and found out these types of burn injuries had been eliminated in Great Britain because the government passed regulations on flame-resistant children’s pajamas. So they decided to form a non-profit organization to lobby for these pajamas. I later became executive director of that organization, known as Action Against Burns. My wife and I had our daughter in 1974, and we moved back to the San Francisco Bay area and started a similar organization there. That’s how I got to San Francisco General Hospital. The original name of the Trauma Foundation was the Burn Council.
Was this around the time you enacted a grassroots campaign on fire-safe cigarettes?
I attended a U.S. Fire Administration public education conference in 1976. I was standing near an elevator, eavesdropping on three guys talking to one another. One of them said, “We could eliminate this whole conference if we just make cigarettes self-extinguish.” I got in the elevator and started chatting with this guy, whose name was John Gerard, fire marshal for the Los Angeles Fire Department and future head of NFPA’s Washington, D.C., office. He’s the one who gave me this idea.
Did it seem like something that could actually be accomplished?
In 1979, I discovered it was very likely that cigarette companies knew how to make self-extinguishing cigarettes that would prevent death and injury due to fire and that they had been withholding this information. After establishing connections at the Center for Investigative Journalism, I got the Center research funding from the International Association of Firefighters. The article was ready and in preprint form on May 24, 1979, and I organized 14 press conferences to simultaneously be held across the country. At the press event, we also asked the tobacco industry to voluntarily make self-extinguishing cigarettes, or we would push a bill to make it happen. Two groups—the American Burn Association and the International Association of Fire Chiefs—endorsed the campaign.
What was the reaction?
We got a lot of press coverage. A week after the press event, there was a fire in Westwood, Massachusetts, that was caused by cigarettes and killed six people. Within a week, Congressman Joe Moakley of Massachusetts held a press event announcing that he was introducing a bill in the House mandating cigarette companies make fire-safe cigarettes. Next January, Senator Alan Cranston from California introduced the same bill in the Senate. The goal was to lobby Congress to pass it, but we had no chance of winning at that level; the tobacco industry was way too powerful in those days. The campaign defaulted to the next level of activity—in other words, the path of least resistance was going to state legislators.
How did you plan to appeal to these legislators?
I would put together local coalitions statewide, and the fire service community, burn victims, and families of burn victims would push this campaign. At the state level, it was tough sledding getting anything against the cigarette companies in those years, but we gained momentum in New York and California. New York State Senator Pete Grannis was pushing this legislation and lined up enough support.
All of a sudden, everything started to change. The tobacco industry started getting worried. I flew to Albany when the bill went to the Senate. I got to the hearing, testified, and a Grannis staffer came up to me after and said, “We just got an urgent phone call from Congressman Moakley’s office. It looks like the tobacco industry wants to have a compromise at the federal level.”
What the cigarette companies wanted was a study on the technological and economic feasibility of making a fire-safe cigarette. I had no problems pushing that because it would be good to have that research done, and if that question is answered positively, then even if we go no further at the federal level, we have that federally mandated study that we can use at the state level. Moakley’s original bill in 1984 was amended and modified to be a three-year study bill. In exchange, I told the tobacco guys I would stop my efforts at the state level and call off the coalitions.
What part did you play in this study?
I actually helped write the bill, which created a 15-person oversight committee, or technical study group. For three years, we met for a day in Washington once a month, going over research parameters. A nine-volume report was issued to Congress in December 1987. The final sentence in the executive summary stated, “The technical study group finds that it is technically and economically feasible to make a reduced-ignition propensity cigarette.”
We then got another bill through Congress to create a performance standard. [In 1990, President George Bush signed Moakley’s Fire-Safe Cigarette Act, funding a three-year research program to develop a test method for a fire-safety performance standard for cigarettes. In 1993, the technical advisory group reported that it had developed a test method.]
In March 1994, I appeared on 60 Minutes. The story triggered a lot of events, but the key outcome was that I got a phone call from Jeff Wigand [whistleblower and former vice-president of research and development for the tobacco company Brown & Williamson] who said, “You don’t know me, although I’ve seen you many times. I used to sit in the audience at those technical committee meetings. I worked with Brown & Williamson until I was fired. I want to go public with what I know.”
All of a sudden we had a person making public statements and statements in legislative hearings that it’s very easy to make a self-extinguishing cigarette. We not only had the government say it was possible, we had the former head of R&D for the third-largest cigarette company in the world at the time—outside of China—say it was possible. That led to the passage of a bill in New York in 2000, the first state to do it.
What was your reaction?
Before the bill passed, Philip Morris announced that they were test-marketing a fire-safe cigarette—before any government regulation. This was a bigger event in a sense because it was now out in the marketplace. The New York law took effect in June 2004. I was also pushing this campaign in Canada during the same time; the exact same standard took effect that October.
How did grassroots efforts help the cause?
Burn nurses and doctors would call me—this was pre-Internet—when there was a fire in their district or a burn injury or burn death that would come through the burn center. I would mail them a press release, putting in facts for a local event, making the fire chief or that burn surgeon the key spokesperson leading the campaign. We had all these leaders leading the national campaign for fire-safe cigarettes. The media portion of this was done with no money.
How did you connect with NFPA’s Fire-Safe Cigarette Coalition?
NFPA got involved in the campaign when we were pushing the California bill. Shortly after, I was hired as a consultant.
How do you rate the coalition’s effectiveness?
It collapsed the amount of time it took to spread this nationwide and outside our borders. It could have taken a decade rather than four years. I’ve never had the kind of resources that NFPA has. In all those years, I was never able to get a grant from any single foundation to do this kind of work, because it was all political work.
What was your involvement in the recent Wyoming passage?
I testified at the last hearing, in the last House, in the last state. It was a nice feeling. It was a bookend. I thought about how I’d first heard of fire-safe cigarettes at that conference in 1976, and it’s now 34 years later.
Have you taken this fight global?
I’ve been working with the European Union and mostly anti-tobacco organizations in European Union countries. We really have to get Latin America on board, and we hope China will happen in the next five years. I think in a decade, we’ll probably see it as a worldwide standard.
What else are you working on?
Ninety-eight percent of my work is running another campaign in California to provide affordable and universal health insurance for all residents. California’s legislature passed the law twice, but it was vetoed by Governor Schwarzenegger. We’re going to get it, and if people ask me how long it’s going to take, I say 10 years.
— Interview conducted by staff writer Fred Durso, Jr.