Where there's smokes

March 23, 2006

Last week, someone carelessly tossed a cigarette butt in a pile of dead grass and leaves in Solomons Island. The resulting blaze destroyed two popular restaurants, four condominiums and two boats, a loss estimated at $5 million or more. Remarkably, no one was hurt, but the incident underscores a serious problem. Cigarettes are the leading cause of house fires in this country. Maryland's experience is typical: In 2004, 22 people died in the 473 fires that were ignited by cigarettes - or about one-quarter of all the people who died in fires that year.

The General Assembly is considering legislation that could help solve this problem. The bill would require that all cigarettes sold in Maryland be certified as low-ignition beginning in 2007. Tobacco companies manufacture such a product. In most cases, it merely requires that cigarettes be wrapped in special banded paper. If a fire-safe cigarette is not actively puffed, it tends to extinguish itself.

The House of Delegates approved the bill last Friday, but now it faces an uncertain future in the Senate where it must get past Finance Committee Chairman Thomas M. Middleton, a Charles County Democrat who is sympathetic to Southern Maryland's tobacco interests. The cost to consumers is modest - an estimated penny per pack - but the potential benefit could be huge. Residential fires have declined significantly since the state of New York adopted the standard in 2004. California and Vermont have also passed low-ignition laws, and a handful of other states may soon follow suit.

Tobacco companies are against the idea, but that's no surprise. More important, the state's fire and rescue community has come out strongly for it. Its reasoning is simple: Self-extinguishing cigarettes are certain to save lives. Surely that's worth an extra penny on each pack.

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