Safer cigarettes mean fewer smoking fires

Cigarette manufacturing changes meant to reduce the risk of fires have led to a dramatic decrease in those types of blazes in Ohio, which cause nearly a quarter of all fire deaths.

In 2011, there were 1,529 Ohio fires caused by smoking, a 40 percent decrease from 2010 and a 53 percent drop from a recent high of 2007.

An Ohio law governing the changes, meant to cause cigarettes to burn out faster if they’re not being smoked while also decreasing their ability to set furniture on fire, went into effect in May 2010. All 50 states have passed similar laws, meaning most major cigarette companies produce only the “reduced ignition strength” cigarettes. Such packs are marked with the initials FSC (Fire Standard Compliant).

Officials cite smoking-related fires as a significant concern because they caused 24 percent of all civilian fire deaths from 2006-10, according to the National Fire Protection Association.

“It has been a very dramatic effect,” said John R. Hall, division director of fire analysis and research at the NFPA. “These are significant changes.”

The new cigarettes use banded paper to create what manufacturers call “speed bumps,” which are meant to slow the rate the cigarette burns as it passes over them. Officials say the cigarette companies were enthusiastic about pursuing such changes.

The companies must still convince some smokers that no additional or potentially harmful chemicals are used in the new manufacturing.

“The idea behind this technology is that the cigarette is more likely to self-extinguish,” David Sutton, spokesperson for Philip Morris USA, wrote in an email. “As a result, FSC cigarettes may extinguish unexpectedly when unattended.

“Bands applied to the cigarette paper only use ingredients that were also used when (the company) manufactured non-FSC cigarettes. FSC cigarettes do not use fire-retardant chemicals in order to meet state fire standards.”

Hall said the movement to change cigarettes to reduce smoking fires began in the 1980s. Companies tested multiple types of methods and technologies, and the results were supplied to outside vendors for confirmation of their usefulness.

New York was the first state to pass a law mandating that such cigarettes be sold. It was signed into law on the final day of 2003, and all 50 states have since passed their own versions. The final law went into effect in Wyoming in July 2011.

The new laws come after significant progress in the battle against smoking fires. In 1980, there were 70,800 such fires, but an increase in awareness and a steady decrease in the smoking rate helped that number drop 63 percent by 2002, to 26,100.

Although officials applaud that progress, they continue to stress the issue’s importance because of the number of people such fires kill.

“For decades, every time we went through the U.S. fire problem and said, ‘What are the biggest priorities,’ smoking fires were always number one,” Hall said. “There was no close second. The feeling was always that if we could get some traction there we could have a major impact on how many people are killed.”

But, it’s not as simple as changing cigarettes. Rudy Ruiz, a board member of the Ohio Fire and Emergency Services Foundation and fire marshal for the city of Sandusky, said that because so many smoking-related fires happen in homes, officials have difficulty spreading messages to a wide audience. A workplace, for instance, can gather employees for training. Officials can’t go house-to-house to warn about smoking and provide home-specific tips.

Smoking habits could also negate some advances in cigarette technology, Ruiz said. A growing percentage of smokers are buying “roll-your-own” tobacco and cigarette tubes separately and then using machines to roll them into cigarettes. While some legislators and tobacco industry leaders are attacking that method because they say it skirts taxes, fire officials say those roll-your-own cigarettes don’t follow the guidelines decreasing their ability to start fires.

Ruiz said he and other fire officials are working to create awareness with children, whom they hope can educate their parents.

“We teach them stop, drop and roll and those kinds of things, but that’s all information you need after a fire starts,” he said. “We’re trying to teach them more about prevention, blowing out candles, making sure cigarettes in the house are put out.

“We tell them to make sure it’s not happening in their house, because this is very important.”

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