AUGUSTA – It’s no news that cigarettes are bad for the health, but a proposal slated for consideration in the next legislative session puts a public-safety spin on the issue.
If the bill is passed, all cigarettes sold in Maine would have to be made with a slow-burning paper that causes them to self-extinguish if they’re not being smoked. Maine would become the second state in the nation to pass such a law, reinforcing efforts to create a federal standard.
Supporters say the “fire-safe” cigarettes will save lives by cutting down on the number of fires caused by improperly extinguished smoking materials, but opponents say smokers will buy their cigarettes out of state or through the Internet.
According to Maine’s fire marshal, John Dean, 70 percent of the fires in Maine each year are caused by smoldering cigarettes and other smoking materials. Blazes caused by smoking materials are responsible for one-third of the fire-related deaths in Maine, compared to a national average of 25 percent.
In real numbers, of the 210 fire deaths in Maine between 1992 and 2001, 68 were found to be smoking materials-related. Forty-one others were of “undetermined” cause, but Dean said many of those are presumed to have been smoking-related as well.
In 2000, 10 of 17 fire deaths in Maine were smoking-related. Between 1990 and 1998, there were five incidents of multiple deaths by smoking-related fires, most involving parents and their young children.
That’s why Dean is an avid supporter of LD 1127, An Act to Require Fire-Safe Cigarettes in the State. The bill, sponsored by Rep. Thomas Bull, D-Freeport, calls for the state to require all cigarettes sold in Maine to be fire-safe – meaning that without fairly consistent puffing, they’ll have a tendency to put themselves out before they can start a fire in paper, mattresses, upholstery or other combustible materials.
The bill was presented during the last session, but held over while lawmakers, researchers and health and safety experts in the state of New York wrangled with the tobacco industry to develop a workable, enforceable standard.
New York passed its fire-safe cigarette law in 2000 – the only state to have done so – and has spent close to $1 million to conduct testing and research. Though the law has been passed, it has yet to be tested because the details of implementation are still being worked out. Rulemaking is expected to be final within six months.
Maine Fire Marshal Dean thinks Maine should take advantage of New York’s considerable investment and adopt similar standards.
“This is one time we can be glad Maine isn’t out in front,” said Dean, speaking last week to the members of the Legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee.
According to Brendan McCormick, spokesman for cigarette maker Philip Morris in Richmond, Va., the tobacco industry supports the development of cigarettes with reduced “ignition propensity,” but takes issue with the term “fire-safe.”
“Cigarettes are a product that’s meant to be lit and burned,” he said. “Even under the terms of this legislation, the bottom line is that people need to handle cigarettes carefully.”
Shortly after the New York law passed, Phillip Morris introduced a new paper that is still being used in its “Merit” line. The paper has thicker bands woven into it that act like speed bumps to slow the burn.
The cigarettes are priced the same as Philip Morris’ other products now, McCormick said, but he would not comment on whether the company’s investment in new manufacturing processes would drive up prices eventually.
Consumer feedback has not been great. “The primary thing they comment on is that it is self-extinguishing. Smokers don’t necessarily see that as a positive attribute,” McCormick said. Nonetheless, banded paper is the most promising alternative for meeting New York’s stringent new requirements, he said.
But the issue would be better addressed on the federal level rather than state by state, according to McCormick.
New York already has a problem with bootleg cigarette operations, McCormick noted, with residents buying cigarettes out of state, over the Internet, and from American Indian reservations to circumvent the state’s highest cigarette tax in the nation .
Without a federal standard that affects all cigarettes sold in the United States, consumers easily can access whatever products they prefer, he said.
Interest in federal legislation has been high in recent years, but a 2002 bill in the U.S. House never made it to the floor, said McCormick. Attempts to revive the issue have not resulted in new legislation, but the industry remains supportive of establishing a uniform standard that would apply equally in all states, he said.
In Maine, convenience store owners and other cigarette retailers have expressed concern over the proposed state law, fearful that consumers, faced with paying a higher price for a product they don’t much like, will simply buy their cigarettes elsewhere.
But the measure has the support of the Maine chapter of the American Lung Association. Executive Director Ed Miller said Friday the organization urges smokers to quit altogether, but that fire-safe cigarettes address a separate issue.
“It would be a mistake to confuse a ‘fire-safe’ cigarette with a ‘safe’ cigarette,” Miller said. “But this is a public health measure to prevent the disability and death caused by fires that are started by cigarettes.”
The Health and Human Services Committee will revisit LD 1127 in the coming legislative session.