Australia — Australian officials said Friday they want to fast-track rules making cigarettes less likely to ignite fires as part of the government’s response to this month’s wildfires that killed at least 209 people.
It is not known if smoldering butts were responsible for causing any of the more than 400 fires that ripped across southern Victoria state, but research shows they are one of many factors blamed for previous blazes.
The Feb. 7 disaster was one of Australia’s worst, destroying more than 1,800 homes as the fires scorched 1,500 square miles (3,900 square kilometers) of forests and farms. More than 7,000 people were displaced.
Parliament in September passed laws that require cigarette makers to change the paper and chemical additives used in their products so they will stop burning quickly once discarded, but they are not due to take effect until March 2010.
Consumer Affairs Minister Chris Brown wants to speed up the implementation, his spokesman James Cullen said.
Laws requiring so-called “fire-safe” cigarettes have come into effect in most U.S. states since 2004, as well as in Canada, and Britain is considering introducing similar rules, according to an Australian government report on the new regulations.
Australia’s largest cigarette manufacturer, British American Tobacco Australia Ltd., said companies need time to switch production under the new rules and that the 2010 start date in Australia was a compromise set by the government in consultation with the tobacco industry.
The company would have to discuss any new deadline with the government before commenting on whether it opposed the change, spokeswoman Louise Warburton said.
She said her company must introduce new technology to its Sydney factory and import its paper from a different supplier to meet the new standards. She did not expect retail prices to change.
Most cigarettes available in Australia are manufactured locally from imported tobacco.
The government-backed Australian Institute of Criminology says there are about 60,000 forest fires in Australia each year, and about half of them are deliberately set or suspicious. Other causes are lightning strikes and sparks from power tools.
The government estimates that 7 percent of wildfires in Victoria are caused by cigarettes or matches.
One man has been charged with deadly arson in connection with the Feb. 7 blazes and police say they suspect at least one other fire was deliberately set. A huge police investigation is under way.
Two weeks after the disaster, firefighters are still battling a handful of blazes in Victoria, though none were threatening homes.
Residents and repair crews are moving back into destroyed towns, as police complete their search for bodies in more areas. Police added one new confirmed victim to the death toll, which is expected to rise further but not dramatically.
Also Friday, police charged a woman with fraud after she sought a 10,000 Australian dollar ($6,400) government payment for victims by falsely claiming her father was killed in the fires.