Public misled over fire-safe cigarettes

December 18, 2002

THE tobacco industry misled the public and legislators over cigarettes designed to pose less of a fire hazard, internal industry documents reveal. Manufacturers stated publicly that the cigarettes would not sell, even though their own research showed smokers couldn't tell them apart from regular cigarettes.

In all countries where data is available, cigarettes are the leading cause of fire deaths. In the US alone, a thousand people are killed each year in smoking-related fires, and a third of them are not the smoker responsible. At the beginning of January 2003, New York state will achieve a world first by introducing fire safety regulations for cigarettes to combat the problem.

Efforts to make cigarettes less likely to cause a fire began in the 1970s when the industry tested prototypes with different tobacco blends, fire-resistant additives and low-porosity paper that restricted the amount of oxygen reaching the burning tobacco. All the cigarettes were designed to go out if left unpuffed for a set time.

While tobacco companies succeeded in developing "fire-safe" cigarettes, they consistently claimed smokers would find them unacceptable. In 1994, US tobacco giant RJ Reynolds Tobacco stated, "We do not know how to make a cigarette that exhibits reduced ignition propensity that is consumer acceptable...extensive consumer testing showed they are not marketable."

But Andrew McGuire, director of the Trauma Foundation, a San Francisco-based organisation that campaigns to prevent accidental injuries, has uncovered internal papers that prove the industry could make fire-safe cigarettes that were acceptable to smokers as early as 1985 (Tobacco Control, vol 1, p 346). He and his team searched industry documents released as part of the 1998 Master Settlement Agreement between tobacco companies and the US government.

One report covered consumer tests carried out in 1993 by RJ Reynolds on cigarettes that had been modified with fire-resistant additives and used less porous paper to make them less of a fire hazard. The report concludes that consumers found no significant difference between them and regular cigarettes.

A 1987 document from tobacco company Philip Morris shows that a study into different types of fire-safe cigarette reached a similar conclusion, stating: "The cigarette models appear to be equally acceptable to smokers."

McGuire believes a separate document reveals why companies were so reluctant to introduce the prototype cigarettes. A document from British American Tobacco dated 1983 cites "product liability reasons" for not proceeding with fire-safe cigarettes. This suggests to McGuire that the industry feared that marketing fire-safe brands would be a tacit admission that earlier versions were less safe. This might expose them to law suits from people injured in fires caused by standard cigarettes.

A spokesman for Philip Morris said McGuire's study is "a very selective citing from a small number of documents". The company last year introduced a "low-ignition" paper on its "Merit" brand of cigarettes.

As New Scientist went to press, RJ Reynolds had failed to respond to questions on the matter. But the company's website implies that it blames careless smokers, not cigarettes, for fires: "Anything that burns and is handled in a careless manner represents a potential fire hazard." McGuire rejects this defence. "What do you tell someone whose loved one was burned to death in a fire caused by a neighbour's cigarette?" he asks.

Philip Morris's spokesman told New Scientist that the company supports federal laws to make cigarettes less likely to cause fires. But Peter Grannis of New York state's assembly, who has championed fire safety legislation, says the industry has used its political influence to set federal and state legislators against each other: "This issue has whipsawed back and forth from states to the feds for 18 years."

New York will unveil its fire safety regulations for cigarettes on 1 January 2003, and the industry will be given six months to comply. However, the state legislation may yet be trumped by a federal bill being considered by Congress. Known as the Stearns-Towns bill, it has been criticised for being vague about when new measures should be introduced. The co-sponsors of the bill have received over $200,000 from the tobacco industry.

Grannis says the industry is concerned about the New York legislation. "How can they sell a cigarette that could save lives in New York, but not sell it in New Jersey?" he asks.
Written by James Randerson

New Scientist issue: 21/28th December 2002


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