Cigarette plan ignites dispute

November 21, 2007|By Tyeesha Dixon | Tyeesha Dixon,Sun reporter

National cigarette companies argue that Baltimore officials don't have the legal right to require that all cigarettes sold in the city meet enhanced fire-safety standards, according to documents released by city health officials yesterday.

Although a Maryland law passed in May will require that only fire-safe cigarettes be sold in the state as of July, Baltimore's proposed regulation would take effect before then.

The Baltimore City Health Department released the public comments that officials solicited since the rule was proposed in October. Among the contributors were health and legal experts and cigarette manufacturers.

The proposal came about after a Harvard study showed that cigarettes sold in Baltimore are substantially more likely to start fires than those sold in states that require the so-called "fire-safe" cigarettes.

Such cigarettes self-extinguish when they are not being smoked. The most common include "speed bumps," or thin bands of less-porous paper wrapped around the width of the cigarette every few centimeters. When the smoldering tobacco reaches a speed bump, it goes out.

More than 20 states have passed laws requiring the fire-safe cigarettes, and five states have already enacted them.

Lawyers for three tobacco companies submitted legal arguments against the Baltimore proposal, claiming the Maryland statute prohibits any local law from "pre-empting" the state mandate. The manufacturers also argued that a regulation that begins before July does not give retailers time to sell their old inventory and switch to a fire-safe cigarette stock.

"The General Assembly's recognition of the need for a similar and uniform statewide transition period is clearly reflected in [its] express prohibition of local measures that conflict in any way with the Maryland law and the compliance policy it adopts," wrote James A. Goold, an attorney who submitted comments on behalf of R.J. Reynolds and Lorillard tobacco companies.

David Howard, a spokesman for Reynolds, said the company, which makes brands such as Camel and Kool, already plans to use fire-safe paper on all its cigarette brands by the end of 2009. He said Reynolds will comply with the state law, which leaves enough time for the company to work with paper suppliers.

"We wouldn't necessarily oppose state regulations or state standards, as long as they are in line with standards that are already in place and provide enough time for us to address supply issues," Howard said.

Philip Morris USA, the company that manufactures Marlboro cigarettes, submitted comments that took a similar stance.

Kathleen Dachille, a legal advocate for tobacco regulation who supports the city's proposal, said she also had concerns about such legal issues when the city proposed the regulation but, with research, has concluded that they are unwarranted.

"I think that's a good question to ask as lawyers, but they're wrong," said Dachille, director of the Legal Resource Center for Tobacco Regulation, Litigation and Advocacy at the University of Maryland School of Law.

She contends that because the state law won't be in effect until July, a city regulation enacted before then can be valid.

In other public comments, some took public safety and consumer-driven approaches to their suggestions.

Del. James E. Malone Jr. wrote that he opposes the city regulation because the state went through much deliberation in considering a starting date, including adequate paper supply.

Others supported the law, such as Janet Keith, a Baltimore smoker who said she didn't know a fire-safe cigarette existed until reading a Sun article about the city's proposal. Keith wrote that recently, she couldn't figure out why some of her cigarettes had extinguished on their own when left unattended in an ashtray, something she found "odd, but also `neat.'"

"I love this feature," Keith wrote. "I hate putting a lit cig down and having it bother nonsmokers because it is just burning."

City officials will review the comments before deciding "what, if any, next steps to take," Baltimore Health Commissioner Dr. Joshua M. Sharfstein said.

"We're going to take every comment seriously," Sharfstein said. "We want to release them so people know what we're hearing. But we haven't really had the chance to thoroughly evaluate all the comments."

Sharfstein said he does not know how long it will take to review the comments.

tyeesha.dixon@baltsun.com

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