From the 2006 News Archive
Read the Baltimore Sun op-ed by Professor Kathleen Dachille on 'fire-safe' cigarettes
Mandate 'fire-safe' cigarettes in Md.
By Kathleen Hoke Dachille
Originally published January 11, 2006
A devastating fire rocked the small Western Maryland community of Keedysville and nearby Boonsboro High School last month, killing three teens when the home in which they were sleeping became engulfed in flames.
The Office of the State Fire Marshal has concluded that the fire was caused by a carelessly discarded cigarette, which smoldered and ignited flames in the bedding on which it fell. The fire might have been prevented if the cigarette had been extinguished properly and safely. But accidents happen.
What makes this tragedy worse, however, is that the fire that killed Brian P. Daigle, 18, Jonathan R. Barnes, 17, and Michael L. Abell, 17, could have been prevented despite the accident. Fires caused by cigarettes are the leading cause of fire deaths in the country, having killed an average of about 780 Americans a year between 1999 and 2001 and an average of 16 Marylanders a year between 2000 and 2002..
Cigarette-caused fire victims tend to come from our most vulnerable populations, the young and the elderly. And property damage from such fires exceeds $4 million annually in Maryland.
Although tobacco manufacturers hold dozens of patents for what are known as "fire-safe" or "reduced ignition propensity" cigarettes, which are designed to extinguish when not smoked, the tobacco companies have never voluntarily introduced the safer cigarettes into the market on a wide scale.
After legislative directive and years of intensive study, however, the New York Office of Fire Prevention and Control promulgated regulations effective in June 2004 requiring that all cigarettes sold in New York meet fire safety standards. Similar legislation recently passed in California and Vermont; Canada passed such a law in 2001.
Most manufacturers readily meet the fire safety standard by using a modified paper in which the tobacco is rolled. Such a cigarette contains several bands of paper along the shaft; these slightly thicker bands act as speed bumps, causing the cigarette to extinguish if not drawn upon. Testing shows that 90 percent of cigarettes sold in New York do not exhibit a full-length burn, whereas cigarettes sold elsewhere achieve a full-length burn nearly 100 percent of the time.
Last year, Democratic Del. Brian R. Moe of Laurel, a Howard County firefighter, sponsored a bill in the General Assembly mandating fire safety standards for cigarettes. Despite more than 20 co-sponsors, support from the House Fire Caucus and an effective hearing before the House Economic Matters Committee, the bill was withdrawn based on a desire to learn more about the impact of the New York regulations.
Decades of research in developing the standard, fire data from the New York Office of Fire Prevention and Control and the laws enacted in California and Vermont provide the needed support for a Maryland Cigarette Fire Safety Standards Act this year. The New York office reports that cigarette-caused fire deaths have decreased every month since June 2004.
Opponents of cigarette fire safety standards -- namely, tobacco manufacturers -- cite concerns about reduced consumer acceptance and therefore lower sales of the safer cigarettes; the bottom line is the bottom line for the tobacco companies.
But data from New York reveal no reduction in cigarette sales since the law went into effect. Not only can manufacturers readily produce the safer product, but consumers continue to purchase cigarettes despite the change. Manufacturers also, with a straight face, suggest that "fire-safe" cigarettes might be more toxic than regular cigarettes, a specious argument that is disputed by the industry's own documents and public health research.
The industry also argues that a national standard should be set. Yet it is clear from congressional history that passage of effective legislation on this issue will not occur in the near future. A state bill that would impose the same standard as New York, California, Vermont and Canada would not burden cigarette manufacturers.
No matter how one examines the situation, the loss of three young men in Washington County was tragic and preventable. While fire departments across the state will continue to educate citizens about the risks of careless smoking, we must acknowledge that accidents will continue to occur. And we must demand that our legislators do what they can to reduce death, injury and economic loss resulting from cigarette-caused fires.
To improve public safety in Maryland, the General Assembly should pass the Cigarette Fire Safety Standards Act in 2006. Kathleen Hoke Dachille is managing director of the Legal Resource Center for Tobacco Regulation, Litigation and Advocacy at the University of Maryland School of Law. Her e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.