California, USA — Unable to change the behavior of careless smokers, California is taking a different tack: Requiring cigarettes to snuff themselves.
A new state law aims to reduce tragic accidents caused by discarded cigarettes that smolder on beds, couches, carpets or dry grass.
Beginning Monday, California will require “fire-safe” cigarettes designed to extinguish when dropped or left unattended.
The change is not meant to affect a cigarette’s look, taste or cost, but its flame is more likely to suffocate if ignored for a few minutes.
It’s a no-brainer,” said termed-out Assemblyman Paul Koretz, D-West Hollywood. “You save lives and you lose virtually nothing.”
Koretz’s legislation to require such cigarettes passed the Legislature in 2005 but called for a one-year adjustment period.
Retailers can sell their existing inventories before stocking the new product, but “fire-safe” cigarettes should dominate shelves within several months.
The new generation of cigarettes contain two or three tiny paper bands, or “speed bumps,” through which flame is not supposed to burn without periodic puffing.
New York was the first state to require such cigarettes, in June 2004. Vermont, Illinois, New Hampshire and Massachusetts subsequently passed similar laws.
Tobacco firms warn that “fire-safe” cigarettes are not foolproof and can obscure the need for high fabric flammability standards, maintenance of smoke detectors, and adequate fire education.
“Anything that burns, if you handle it carelessly, can cause a fire,” said Bill Phelps, spokesman for Philip Morris USA.”
R.J. Reynolds and Philip Morris, two of the largest cigarette manufacturers, argue that any mandate should be uniform nationwide, set by Congress, which has not taken action.
“We don’t want to see a patchwork where states might implement different laws with different standards,” said John Singleton, communications director for Reynolds’ parent firm.
To satisfy California’s new law, cigarettes must pass a laboratory test, which requires that 75 percent of those tested extinguish before burning through 10 layers of standard filter paper.
Critics caution, however, that such tests do not duplicate the wide range of upholstered furniture fabrics used in homes.
Data about the effectiveness of banded cigarettes is limited.
In 2005, the first full year that New York required banded cigarettes, the state reported a 10 percent reduction in the number of smoking-related fires and a 26 percent reduction in the number of smoking-related fire deaths compared to annual averages from 2000 through 2003.
“The results are encouraging and we hope the trend continues,” said Larry Sombke of New York’s Office of Fire Prevention and Control.
But cigarette manufacturers warn against unrealistic expectations.
“Identifying cigarettes as ‘fire-safe’ carries some risk of instilling a false sense of security in consumers who may erroneously believe that they can carelessly handle cigarettes without concern for starting a fire,” the R.J. Reynolds Co. says in a position paper on its Web site.
“To date, no technology exists that would prevent a lit cigarette, when handled inappropriately, from ever starting a fire.”