Every year, fires caused by cigarettes result in billions of dollars in property damages, health care costs, lost productivity, and fire and emergency services. These fires burn homes, killing children and families; burn buildings and factories; and devastate city blocks, entire villages, and enormous tracts of forestland and other wilderness. Many cigarette-induced fires occur when a mattress or furniture is ignited while people are asleep or intoxicated. As a result, cigarette fires are disproportionately responsible for fire-related deaths. Cigarettes are the leading cause of fire death among the industrialized western nations. An estimated 30 percent of fire deaths in the United States (approximately 1,000 people a year) and 10 percent of all fire deaths globally are attributable to smoking.
The call to develop a fire-safe cigarette dates back more than a hundred years, as a result of the common association between smoking and fire-related disasters, but was intensified in the 1970s with increasing public awareness and press coverage of the issue. A fire-safe cigarette would be designed either so that it would be less likely to ignite materials with which it remained in contact as it burned or so that it would self-extinguish when left unused for an extended period. Internal industry documents demonstrate that the tobacco industry has pursued fire-safe research for decades and developed dozens of prototype cigarettes. According to internal research made public by the U.S. television program 60 Minutes, the cigarette manufacturer Philip Morris embarked on a fire-safe program in the 1980s called Project Hamlet (in reference to an internal company joke, "To burn or not to burn"), which ultimately resulted in a consumer acceptable fire-safe cigarette. This product and others developed by tobacco manufacturers internally never reached the commercial market, most likely due to cost and product liability concerns.
A three-year review by a fifteen-member panel convened through U.S. legislation, including representatives of the federal government, public health community, fire safety groups, and the tobacco industry, concluded in 1987 that a fire-safe cigarette was both technically and economically feasible. The report also identified several cigarette design factors important to reducing the likelihood of ignition, including the use of expanded tobacco, reduced citrate in cigarette paper, low paper permeability, and decreasing cigarette circumference.
Publicly, the tobacco industry has opposed fire-safe cigarette legislation, claiming that fire-safe cigarettes are unacceptable to consumers, that no testing method can accurately predict whether a cigarette is fire-safe, and that proposed changes would likely increase product toxicity. According to internal documents, the industry successfully neutralized political opposition by making generous grants to fire service organizations and fire departments, supporting fire safety programs, and shifting public discussion to broader fire safety issues. Because much of the information distributed on fire deaths originates from fire department and fire safety organizations, tobacco industry influence on these organizations has had a large effect on the dissemination of information within the general media.
The state of New York passed legislation requiring sale of fire-safe cigarettes starting in July 2003. However, enforcement of the law has since been delayed, with no clear indication of when manufacturer compliance can be expected. In 2000 Philip Morris introduced a fire-safe paper technology to their Merit cigarettes, which caused the cigarette to self-extinguish when left to burn on its own. Although initial market surveys were extremely positive, the company now claims that the product has been a commercial failure, resulting in increased complaints and reduced purchases.
Overall, little progress has been made. New regulations are being considered in Canada, Australia, and the European Union, but these countries face similar challenges to those demonstrated in the United States. In the absence of enforced legislation, it is unlikely that a fire-safe cigarette will ever become standard commercially.
▌ GEOFFREY FERRIS WAYNE
Gunja M., et al. "The Case for Fire Safe Cigarettes Made through Industry Documents." Tobacco Control 11, no. 4 (December 2002): 346–353.
Leistikow, Bruce N., Daniel C. Martin, and Christina E. Milano. "Fire Injuries, Disasters, and Costs from Cigarettes and Cigarette Lights: A Global Overview." Preventive Medicine 31, no. 2 (2000): 91–99.
McGuire, Andrew. "How the Tobacco Industry Continues to Keep the Home Fires Burning." Tobacco Control 8 (March 1999): 67–69.
expanded tobacco a term used to describe cut tobacco leaf that is treated by an expansion process, usually using dry ice, to increase its bulk.
citrate a derivative of citric acid. Many citrates such as magnesium citrate, potassium citrate, and aluminum citrate are present in cigarettes and cigarette smoke.