Tobacco industry tied to firefighters

Donations seen as way to weaken support for fire-safe cigarettes

February 16, 1999|By Scott Shane | Scott Shane,SUN STAFF

After a cigarette ignited a fatal fire that roared through a Baltimore high-rise Feb. 5, Maryland Fire Marshal Rocco J. Gabriele cautioned smokers, noting that careless smoking is the leading cause of fire deaths.

But Gabriele did not mention one reason smoking remains such a fire hazard: For 20 years, the tobacco industry has defeated attempts to require that cigarettes be redesigned to make them less likely to start fires. The industry's main tactic has been to weaken support for such regulation by courting key fire officials such as Gabriele with hefty donations.

The National Association of State Fire Marshals, which Gabriele leads as president, receives $50,000 a year from tobacco giant Philip Morris for "administrative expenses." Several years ago, the tobacco industry gave the association $500,000, which was used to buy smoke detectors for free distribution.

The fire marshal association's Washington office is run by longtime tobacco lobbyist Peter G. Sparber, who represented R. J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. in Congress until recently on the issue of fire-safe cigarettes.

Sparber, who said he serves the association for no fee, has also lobbied on behalf of the National Volunteer Fire Council, a coalition of volunteer fire companies that has received tobacco funding.

Advocates of fire-safety standards for cigarettes find the tobacco-firefighter alliances preposterous.

"It's like the police department taking money from the Mafia to support crime control," said Andrew McGuire, a San Francisco fire-safety advocate who has served on two federal study groups on fire-safe cigarettes. "I think the tobacco industry recognized early on the potential harm the fire service could cause them."

Glenn E. Schneider, spokesman for the anti- tobacco coalition Smoke Free Maryland, said the cigarette companies have often used financial largess to neutralize potential critics.

"Is no organization sacred?" Schneider said. "It's reprehensible that they [cigarette manufacturers] are trying to get into bed with the firefighting industry on this issue."

Rep. Joe Moakley, a Massachusetts Democrat who has fought for years for fire-safe-cigarette standards, said the industry is capable of producing such a product, either by making cigarettes self-extinguishing or changing their composition and dimensions. The holdup has been not technology but politics, he said.

"It's taken so long because tobacco has a great lobbying force in the Congress," said Moakley, who began pushing for legislation after a cigarette-caused fire in his district in 1979 killed seven members of one family. "If the industry hadn't opposed it, it would have passed long ago."

Moakley said the tobacco companies' generosity to firefighters had effectively blunted their support for standards. "They bought smoke detectors and fire alarms, they financed Little Leagues, and they tried to seem like the good guys," he said.

Gabriele, who has served as Maryland's top fire safety official for 17 years, said he doesn't see any problem in his group's close relationship with the tobacco industry. He acknowledged the industry's opposition has long blocked fire-safe-cigarette legislation, but he said cigarette makers now "seem to be coming around" and easing their opposition.

"Quite frankly, I don't care where we get the money," Gabriele said. "I'm not proud. I'll take money from anyone who wants to give it to us."

Neither do Sparber's tobacco ties bother him, Gabriele said.

"I don't get into his personal business. He has assured us over the years that there's no problem with his representing the Tobacco Institute and Reynolds at the same time as he represents us," Gabriele said.

Sparber said he lobbied for several years for R. J. Reynolds, the second-largest U.S. cigarette maker, but his contract ended Dec. 31 and he does not intend to represent the company this year. He said he was an employee of the Tobacco Institute from 1980 to 1988 and was their lobbyist for several years after that.

Sparber said any suggestion that the tobacco industry has influenced fire-protection groups with their financial support was "ridiculous." Most of the industry donations supported fire-prevention efforts, he said.

"I'm not aware of a single instance of a firefighter or fire-safety organization giving up an ounce of integrity for a smoke detector or a slide projector or a `Learn Not to Burn' pamphlet," Sparber said. He singled out Gabriele for praise, saying, "He calls them as he sees them."

Michael W. Minieri II, executive director of the fire marshals' association, said that by policy, the group accepts corporate contributions but does not permit donors to influence its positions. He said the association has opposed fire-safe-cigarette standards in the past only because they were not effective.

"We are strongly in favor of effective standards," Minieri said. "We oppose standards that aren't effective."

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