LET'S FIND out what brand of cigarette that kid was smoking in downtown Ellicott City last month, then sue the manufacturer for the $2 million in damage caused by the six-alarm fire.
Are you with me?
We're not going to blame the smoker for his poor cigarette-extinguishing technique; we're going after the company that made his cigarette.
On its face, this probably strikes you as an absurd proposition.
That was my initial reaction to a message from Bill Godshall, executive director of SmokeFree Pennsylvania: "If and when the tobacco companies are held civilly liable for intentionally manufacturing cigarettes that cause fires, America's leading cause of fire deaths and burn injuries would be eliminated. How can you oppose this?"
Well, I can't. Who could?
But it's hard to believe that, when they set out to produce and sell the evil weed, Big Tobacco (BT) wanted to start fires that would kill on average 1,000 Americans each year. "Careless smoking" causes death and destruction, not burning cigarettes. Right? A person, not a cigarette, was responsible for the fire.
I suggested in a November column that the person who sold the fire-starting cigarette to the 17-year-old (minor) cook in Ellicott City could be held liable for the damages. But my tongue was halfway in my cheek. I like to encourage a lot of things -- charity, brotherhood, reading to your kids, appreciation for the fine sport of boccie -- but another civil suit in this overly litigious society is not what we need.
Bill Godshall disagrees.
"While nobody was killed or harmed in the $2 million fire in Ellicott City, hundreds of children and other innocent victims are burned to death every year in fires caused by cigarettes," he says. "I'll bet that if someone you love is killed or severely burned in a fire caused by a cigarette, or is harmed by another defective product that the manufacturer chose not to remedy, you would want the perpetrator to be held responsible."
Godshall, a former three-pack-a-day man, says BT adds chemicals to the paper and tobacco to make cigarettes burn evenly and steadily. Leave one in an ashtray, it keeps burning and you have to light up another. That's good for business, but potentially deadly for humans, Godshall says.
He and other anti-tobacco advocates believe thousands of fires could have been prevented by so-called fire-safe cigarettes.
Sounds like "drowning-proof swimming pool."
Or "crash-proof car."
But supposedly there is such a thing as a fire-safe cigarette. They're said to be self-extinguishing (if you don't puff, they don't burn), rolled with less porous paper and are generally thinner and less dense than conventional cigarettes.
"Civil lawsuits against hazardous-product manufacturers are the only reason why most products are no longer hazardous," Godshall says, "and these and other lawsuits have protected you and other Americans from harm."
That's true of certain cars, a lot of household products, and toys. (I think it's why you can't find lawn darts in stores anymore.)
But cigarettes -- I hadn't thought about them in this regard.
While it's easy to understand and accept the health hazard they pose to smokers and people who share space with smokers, it's hard to see them as inherently unsafe products, like a dangerously designed car or toaster oven. And that's probably because the term "careless smoking" has been used so much over the years. It suggests the smoker, not the cigarette, was to blame for a fire. If true, the claim that tobacco companies could have produced fire-safe cigarettes years ago changes the picture significantly.
Apparently BT has been on guard against such attacks for a couple of decades.
In February, The Sun's Scott Shane reported that BT consistently defeated attempts to require that cigarettes be made fire-safe. This successful, 20-year lobbying campaign in Washington has included heavy (and neutralizing) financial donations to the very organizations -- including the National Association of State Fire Marshals -- that have crusaded for fire safety.
Meanwhile, some families of fire victims have taken BT to court. Five members of a family were killed in a Boston-area fire in 1990. A burning cigarette dropped between cushions of a chair started the fire. The survivors sued Philip Morris, blaming the tobacco giant for the deaths because it failed to use available technology to produce a safer cigarette. According to a report last month in the Boston Globe, the plaintiffs enlisted the expertise of Jeffrey Wigand, the BT whistle-blower and subject of the new film "The Insider." Wigand, who claimed BT knew how to make safe cigarettes prior to 1990, was barred from testifying by a federal judge. The case was dismissed.
"But other [similar] cases are pending," says Godshall.
So I suppose someone could sue BT for the fire in Ellicott City, arguing that failure to produce a fire-safe cigarette led to the destruction on Main Street last month.
Still, I'm left with this: Any dope who lights a cigarette knows it's a hazard if it's not extinguished properly -- just as you know a car is a hazard if not driven carefully. I don't see anyone suing General Motors because you can drive one of its cars at 100 mph, or because you can fall asleep at the wheel.
Life, she is complicated, no?