Fire-safe cigarettes: The time has come
As this publication goes to press, the United States could be on the brink of an advance in fire safety that could save thousands of lives and prevent billions of dollars in property damage over the next several years.
For years, NFPA has worked with the fire service, safety advocates, and political leaders in Washington and across the country to require cigarette manufacturers to make cigarettes that either extinguish themselves or burn at such a low temperature that they will not ignite furniture or mattresses.
I have written about NFPA’s campaign for fire-safe cigarettes in this space before. The case for them is compelling: Cigarettes are the number one cause of fatal fires in the United States, taking 700 to 800 lives a year. Annually, property losses from fires caused by cigarettes run into the hundreds of millions of dollars.
Two states, New York and Vermont, have already acted by passing their own laws. New York’s went into effect last June, and Vermont’s was signed into law in June of this year.
Information on the New York fire experience since the new law took effect is being compiled, but it will take some time before we have a clear picture of how effective the law has been in preventing deaths, injuries, and property loss. However, there is no indication from sales figures that consumers are less likely to purchase fire-safe cigarettes than regular cigarettes. In fact, tax receipts from cigarette sales in New York increased in the year after the law took effect, refuting claims by opponents that this would alter the taste or smoking experience of the cigarette-buying public. New York’s experience shows that consumers are ready to accept fire-safe cigarettes, so there is no reasonable business rationale for the cigarette companies’ opposition.
Now California seems ready to follow the lead of New York and Vermont in enacting its own legislation to require that cigarettes be fire-safe if sold in the state. If Governor Schwarzenegger signs the California bill into law, the tobacco companies will be producing fire-safe cigarettes for about 20 percent of the country’s population while subjecting the other 80 percent to the unnecessary fire danger posed by traditionally manufactured cigarettes.
Legislative proposals are at various stages in several states, and the national legislation, supported by Representatives Ed Markey (D-MA) and Peter King (R-NY) in the House and Senator Richard Durbin (D-IL) in the Senate, has picked up additional sponsors. The companies that produce cigarettes probably have the political clout to drag out this process for the next few years, but it seems inevitable that, at some time in the near future, the United States will have a national fire-safe cigarette standard, either through national legislation or state-by-state action.
It is time for the tobacco companies themselves to cease their irresponsible opposition to this important safety measure and to announce a date by which they will produce only fire-safe cigarettes.
The attitude toward smoking in the United States has changed tremendously in the last 40 years since the release of the Surgeon General’s Report linking smoking and cancer. Public health advocates encourage people as strongly as they can not to smoke, but, for the foreseeable future, a significant proportion of our population will continue to buy and use tobacco. The tobacco companies that make billions of dollars from the sale of cigarettes have it within their power to substantially reduce the fire danger smoking poses. They owe it to all of us to help lead the way to a safer world.
I call on them to take that step for safety. Fire-safe cigarettes are an idea whose time has come. Responsible individuals and corporations, whatever their positions have been in the past, should act now to ensure that this vital safety measure is available to protect everyone in the United States as soon as possible.
James M. Shannon, President and CEO, NFPA