City to push for safer cigarettes

Move to fire-safe smokes would precede state law

October 11, 2007|By Tyeesha Dixon | Tyeesha Dixon,SUN REPORTER

Baltimore health officials proposed yesterday requiring that all cigarettes sold in the city meet enhanced fire-safety standards - a move that they say would help prevent tragedies like the May fire that killed eight people in East Baltimore.

The Health Department called for the new regulation with the release of a study showing cigarettes sold in Baltimore and in the rest of the state are substantially more likely to start fires than those sold in states with stricter safety standards.

In the study, Harvard researchers found that nearly all the cigarettes sold in Maryland burned all the way to the end, unlike the self-extinguishing cigarettes sold in states such as California and Vermont.

New York became the first state to require the fire-safe cigarettes in 2004, and since then, more than 20 states have passed similar laws, including Maryland. But only five states have implemented the stricter standards.

Fire-safe cigarettes go out when no one is smoking them. The most common fire-safe cigarettes include "speed bumps" - thin bands of less-porous paper wrapped across the width of the cigarette every few centimeters. Once the burning tobacco reaches one of the bands, it goes out by itself, reducing the risk of fires being started by smokers falling asleep with lit cigarettes.

In Maryland, the law doesn't go into effect until July 1 - and even though cigarette companies are permitted to sell the fire-safe brands, health experts say the study shows they aren't doing so. Even with next summer's deadline, regular cigarettes that are tax-stamped before July 1 can still be sold, which could delay full implementation for months.

"What Baltimore is doing can have significant impact on the tobacco industries," said Gregory N. Connolly, the Harvard School of Public Health professor and researcher who conducted the Baltimore study and has produced several similar reports.

Connolly says this is the first time a municipality has challenged the tobacco industry at a regulatory level.

"What the city is doing is breaking new ground," he said. "The tobacco industry's never been faced with this before."

Some skeptics question the cost such laws could have on consumers, and manufacturers say they would prefer a national standard rather than regulations that vary by state. But Connolly said his research found that New York's fire-safe cigarettes are no more toxic - or costly - than regular cigarettes. And New York officials say they've seen a change.

"We feel confident that it makes a difference," said Eamon Moynihan, a spokesman for the New York Department of State. "There's a strong consensus here that they reduce" fire fatalities.

But Moynihan acknowledged it is difficult to compare fire death statistics because of reporting issues.

Kathleen Dachille, a legal advocate for stricter tobacco regulation, said the move toward fire-safe cigarettes is extraordinary.

"The way this has been methodically passed in about 23 jurisdictions in the last year ... that's very rapid progress for a bill," said Dachille, director of the Legal Resource Center for Tobacco Regulation, Litigation and Advocacy at the University of Maryland School of Law.

"This was the first time we're saying, `We're going to regulate the [tobacco] product itself.'"

"We're going to be able to put a significant dent in the fire problem," said Lorraine Carli, spokeswoman for the National Fire Protection Association. "It's a very simple thing to do, and it makes a lot of sense for safety reasons."

Local officials say they hope the proposal will bring the fire-safe cigarettes to Baltimore sooner than the new state law requires.

"We can really honor ... in pushing this aggressive plan ... the lives that were lost here," said Mayor Sheila Dixon at a news conference in front of the Cecil Avenue home that caught fire this year, killing eight sleeping people. Fire investigators said a lit cigarette caused the fire, and city health officials were prompted to request the Harvard study.

The city plans to solicit public comment on the proposal for 30 days before finalizing the regulation.

"If it can't be done, it can't be done," said Dr. Joshua M. Sharfstein, the city's health commissioner. "We welcome communication from the [tobacco] industry. We look forward to seeing what the real issues are and whether we can overcome them."

Cigarette manufacturers aren't convinced the plan will work. Bill Phelps, a spokesman for Philip Morris USA, said the company - which makes such popular brands as Marlboro and Virginia Slims - supports federal legislation that creates a national standard for fire-safe cigarettes. But he said Baltimore's proposal would cost too much time and money for everyone involved.

"Specifically to Baltimore's proposal, we don't think that that is the best way to go," Phelps said.

He said the company complies with all the state mandates and plans to comply with Maryland's new law come July.

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