Myths versus realities

Published on August 23, 2011

There are many myths about the fire-safe cigarette issue. Some of the arguments below have been used by the tobacco industry as a "smokescreen" to divert attention away from the fact that fire-safe cigarettes can be a highly effective tool to save lives and prevent injuries and devastation from cigarette-ignited fires. (Courtesy of the National Association of State Fire Marshals).

MYTH: There is no such thing as a cigarette that reduces the risk of fire.
FACT: Research by the Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH), funded by the American Legacy Foundation, indicates several benefits of implementing the New York regulation. "Fire Safer" Cigarettes: The Effect of the New York State Cigarette Fire Safety Standard on Ignition Propensity, Smoke Toxicity and the Consumer Market" compared the physical properties of cigarettes sold in New York with cigarettes of the same brands sold in Massachusetts and California (before MA and CA implemented fire-safe cigarette laws). The report found that New York cigarettes were far less likely to exhibit full length burns (only 10 percent) than those of the other states (99.8 percent). The HSPH researchers found no valid reason why cigarette manufacturers should not sell lower ignition strength cigarettes nationwide. The Harvard study confirmed the 20-year-old conclusion of the Federal Technical Study Group on Cigarette and Little Cigar Fire Safety. This group, created by the Cigarette Fire Safety Act of 1984 (Public Law 98-567), concluded that it was technically feasible to develop cigarettes with a reduced propensity to ignite upholstered furniture and mattresses. As the Harvard study makes clear, the federal study was correct, and the tobacco industry can make reduced ignition strength cigarettes if it chooses to do so or is required to do so.

MYTH:  Fire-safe cigarettes are more toxic.
FACT: There is no evidence that reduced ignition propensity cigarettes are any more harmful to health. A report by RJ Reynolds conducted in 1993 compared the tar per cigarette in prototype low-ignition propensity cigarettes. The report concludes: "Ames assay results were not higher for the prototype cigarettes than their respective controls, either on a revertant-per-mg-tar basis or a revertant-per-cigarette basis."

The Harvard School of Public Health study also showed there were no substantial differences in toxicity when key indicators were measured for fire-safe cigarettes and their conventional counterparts. The report states, "The majority of smoke toxic compounds (14) tested were not different between New York and Massachusetts brands. Five compounds were slightly higher in New York brands. There is no evidence that these increases affect the already highly toxic nature of cigarette smoke." The research found the majority of toxic compounds were no different between the smoke of the New York and Massachusetts brands that were tested. Five compounds were slightly higher, but no evidence exists that the small increases affect the already highly toxic nature of cigarette smoke. In addition, The New York State Office of Fire Prevention and Control (OFPC), which developed the New York State lower ignition strength cigarette regulation, consulted with the New York State Department of Health to consider whether cigarettes manufactured in accordance with the regulation may reasonably result in increased health risks to consumers. The Department of Health advised that cigarettes complying with the fire safety standards set forth in the regulation were not expected to significantly change the inherently high risks associated with cigarette smoking. (This determination was based upon the existing information available on banded cigarettes, the only technology known to OFPC at that time that could feasibly meet the performance standard).

MYTH:  People will behave carelessly with fire-safe cigarettes.
FACT: Even tobacco industry documents show that people will remain careful with the new types. A 1991 report of focus groups prepared for RJ Reynolds on consumer behavior with fire-safe cigarettes concludes, "virtually all respondents said they would not alter their current smoking behavior." It goes against common sense to believe that people who have never before been reckless about how they smoke will suddenly become reckless because of a change in what they smoke. The millions of smokers who would like to be safer from fire should be given the tools that exist to save lives.

MYTH:  Fire-safe cigarettes won't save a single life.
FACT: Dr. John R. Hall, Jr., of the NFPA Fire Analysis & Research division, estimates that up to 1,000 lives could have been saved each year across the nation if lower ignition strength cigarettes had been required in every state in the mid-1980s when the federal study was released. Today, best estimates are still that most fire deaths involving lighted tobacco products would be prevented by this legislation, which would mean many hundreds of lives saved every year. According to a September 21, 2005, ABC News/ Associated Press report, fewer people have died in smoking-related fires since New York became the first state to require that tobacco companies sell self-extinguishing cigarettes.

MYTH:  The cigarette industry doesn't know how to make a fire-safe cigarette.
FACT: Chief John Mueller of the New York State Office of Fire Prevention and Control, who coordinated promulgation of New York’s rule, told the National Association of State Fire Marshals' Science Advisory Committee that New York’s goal was to make cigarettes less likely to ignite upholstered furniture or mattresses. New York’s rule resulted in industry’s developing a technically and commercially practical method of designing cigarettes. This has been done, at least in some cases, by using banded paper that interrupts the burning of cigarettes when they are not being actively smoked. In addition, in October 2007, the R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company announced that it will manufacture all of its cigarette brands using the "fire-safe" technology by 2009.

MYTH: There isn’t enough of the special paper to implement fire-safe cigarette laws in more than a few states.
FACT: The cigarette industry has already reworked its practices to produce the lower ignition strength cigarettes for states that have already passed fire-safe cigarette laws. Since the industry is already doing this, making the cigarettes for more states should be much easier.

MYTH: The use of EVA (ethylene vinyl acetate co-polymer emulsion-based adhesive) in fire-safe cigarettes
FACT: Deborah Wolenberg of Philip Morris (PM USA) responded to a reporter’s question about PM studies to compare “health effects” of FSC to non-FSC cigarettes and whether ethylene vinyl acetate (EVA/carpet glue) is used in FSCs. "PM USA has been using ethylene vinyl acetate co-polymer emulsion-based adhesive (EVA) in its cigarettes for over 20 years; well prior to the implementation of FSC technology. This adhesive was not introduced to our cigarette design as part of FSC technology. EVA is a compound used in many different applications. A water-based form of this compound is an adhesive widely used for cigarette papers. Chemically, the adhesive that we use is not carpet glue and it is not the same EVA used in foam and plastics. This water-based adhesive is used in cigarette products around the world, in many countries, by many different manufacturers. This adhesive is on the allowable ingredients lists for cigarettes in a number of countries such as the UK, Germany, Belgium and France. There is no more EVA used in PM USA's FSC versus non-FSC cigarettes. EVA is utilized in PM USA's cigarettes as a side-seam cigarette paper adhesive."

MYTH:  Alcohol and drug abuse are the real problems.
FACT: The mixing of drugs and alcohol with cigarette smoking increases the likelihood of a fatal fire. However, focusing only on behavioral issues and neglecting what can be done to make cigarettes less fire-prone is extremely dangerous. Personal responsibility may be an argument for the smoker who kills himself in one of these fires. But what about the innocent people – children, spouses, parents, visitors – who are killed in fires started by someone else’s careless behavior? According to NFPA, one in four victims is not the smoker whose cigarette ignited the fatal fire. They deserve to be protected, too. We cannot count on the war against drugs and alcohol to solve this problem. Changing human behavior is extremely difficult, but changing the cigarette to make it less likely to ignite a fire is something that cigarette manufacturers know how to do. Citizens in every state should be given the same opportunity to avoid being killed in a cigarette-ignited fire.

MYTH: The lack of fire sprinklers is the real problem.
FACT: Fire sprinklers in every American home would definitely improve overall fire safety, and is a good way to ensure redundancy of safety measures. However, fire sprinklers extinguish fires once they occur, which means that we have failed to prevent the fire. Smoke alarms are also necessary in homes to alert people when fires do occur, but they do nothing to prevent fires, either. Also, if the cigarette falls near the head of a sleeping smoker, the smoldering fire can produce enough carbon monoxide to kill him or her before there is enough heat from the burning chair/bed to activate the sprinkler.

MYTH: An un-educated public is the real problem.
FACT: Local fire departments and other community safety officials do a very good job of informing the public about fire safety. Despite these public safety campaigns, cigarette fire deaths are still far too common. Part of the problem is that even with education, someone who is impaired by alcohol or drug use is less likely to remember a fire safety lesson. And education does not save the innocent victims who are killed in cigarette-ignited fires just because they happened to be in the same residence at the time the fire occurred.

MYTH: Upholstered furniture and mattresses are the real problems.
FACT: Fire safety is about redundancy in safety measures, and cigarettes should not get a free pass. We need to try to prevent fires by addressing ignition sources and fuels, as well as human behavior, and we need to have smoke alarms and sprinklers in place in case our efforts at preventing fires fail. Upholstered furniture and mattresses have had enhanced cigarette resistance for decades, thanks to an industry standard in the first case and an early regulation of the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) in the second. But it may be decades before every American household has fire-resistant furniture and mattresses. Cigarettes are purchased and used much more quickly than furniture. Lower ignition strength cigarettes can therefore have a positive effect on the fire problem much sooner.

MYTH:  The push for fire-safe cigarettes is just an anti-smoking campaign.
FACT: The Coalition for Fire-Safe Cigarettes is concerned about fire safety, and preventing deaths and injuries from cigarette-ignited fires. This is not about getting people to stop smoking or to smoke less. This is about making sure that the cigarettes that are smoked are less likely to cause fires.

MYTH: The state-by-state campaign should be stopped to focus on the tobacco companies and a federal standard.
FACT:  The progress of this grassroots campaign has been amazing and stunningly fast. Since 2004, all 50 states have approved the same standard to better protect their residents having recognized the need to offer their residents this available protection. Having consistent laws on the books gives the states the monitoring and enforcement power they need to regulate all cigarettes being manufactured and sold within their borders. Of course, the tobacco companies could do this on their own even more quickly and the Coalition has urged them to do that for nearly two years. There is no guarantee that a federal standard would be consistent with laws being adopted at the state level. Any change or debate would cause unnecessary confusion and delay. Any delay means more people will die needlessly.

MYTH: This issue can be addressed by a federal standard.
FACT: The first national cigarette fire safety law was proposed in the 1970s. There is no basis to believe that Congress is prepared to move on cigarette fire safety legislation. Since the last Congressional study came out in 1993, some 10,000 Americans have died as a result of cigarette fires.

MYTH: A state legislature shouldn't act because data doesn't show how effective the law will be.
FACT: Rigorous design and testing of the test method over two decades correlates the laboratory tests to real-world fires. ASTM, the private non-profit standards-setting organization, refined the test developed by the National Institute of Standards and Technology. The tobacco industry participated in the governmental and ASTM processes. It’s common sense: a cigarette that burns to its full length generates more heat and is more likely to cause a fire than one that self extinguishes half way down. Moreover, a January 2005 CNBC segment shown at the joint Senate committee hearing in February 2005, provides a compelling demonstration of the preventative effects of reduced-ignition cigarettes: a fire safe cigarette extinguished in about five minutes; a standard cigarette smoldered for more than two hours before the test upholstered chair burst into flames.

MYTH:  Cigarette sales dropped in New York because of the law that requires fire-safe cigarettes.
FACT: The January 2005 Harvard School of Public Health study shows that no change in per capita cigarette sales occurred in New York when comparing the five months following their regulation compared with the corresponding time period the year before. The report found "New York has experienced no decline in cigarette sales or excise tax payments since the standard went into effect." A 2.5% drop in cigarette revenue was "found not to be statistically significant when accounting for month-to-month and state-to-state variation." In addition, because the price was not raised and many consumers have not even noticed the change, any decrease in sales would most likely be attributed to other factors, such as decreased smoking rates.

MYTH: State cigarette tax revenue will evaporate.
FACT: The Harvard School of Public Health researchers reviewed New York tax data for six months after the implementation of the new law. They found the lower ignition strength cigarettes appeared to have no effect on sales of cigarettes in New York. NASFM President and New York State Fire Administrator James A. Burns concurred with the analysis, saying the state has not lost revenue.

MYTH: The law discriminates against "mom and pop" retailers.
FACT: The fire-safe cigarette laws apply to all retail cigarette sales, so there is no discrimination on the size of the retailer.

NFPA (National Fire Protection Association)
1 Batterymarch Park, Quincy, MA 02169-7471 USA
Telephone: +1 617 770-3000 Fax: +1 617 770-0700