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Ralph Nader > In the Public Interest > Where There’s Smoke…

From ‘a Philadelphia newspaper: “Six children were killed and three other peo­ple were injured this morning when a one-alarm fire gutted a two-story home. A cig­arette carelessly left smoldering on a living room couch caused the blaze, which fire­fighters brought under control in only 16 minutes.”

From a Boston newspaper: “A smolder­ing cigarette that may have burned un­noticed for as long as six hours was blamed yesterday for a fire that wiped out a Westwood family—mother and father and their five children on Memorial Day.”

More than 2,000 Americans die every year in fires started by cigarettes. Many thousands more are seriously burned. More than a billion dollars are lost in property damage each year. –

The tobacco industry could prevent most of these fires simply by producing self-extinguishing cigarettes that will burn no more than five minutes when not being smoked. This life-saving move could have been accomplished decades ago. Many European cigarettes—two brands in this country (More and Sherman)—already are reasonably self-extinguishing. So are cigars and pipe tobacco.

As can be expected, the Tobacco Institute lobby in Washington is opposed. The congressionally powerful lobby says such a cigarette would have a sales-depressing taste to it. European taste buds must be different.

Then the tobacco industry said such a cigarette would have health hazards—a unique twist for an industry that still denies any adverse health effects from smoking. The National Cancer Institute debunked that allegation.

Way back in 1950 the conservative Reader’s Digest had this to say about cig­arette-caused fires: “In England, Switzerland and other countries abroad people have been smoking slow-burning cigar­ettes—and liking them—for years. In the United States, however, the tobacco in­dustry is not yet ready to make its product less of a tire hazard. The faster cigarettes burn, the more are used, the bigger the sales.”

Aha! Here you have Reader’s Digest saying that a unique kind of product obsolescence is a motivation behind the tobacco companies’ refusal to reduce the fire toll. The more cigarettes burn down to the butt, the more cigarettes are sold in the aggregate. .

On April 10, 1979, the physician-run American Burn Association sent a letter to all seven major tobacco companies. The doctors noted that cigarettes continue to burn for a long time because “citrate or phosphate salts are added to a thin, porous paper and sodium or potassium nitrate is added to tobacco through fertil­ization or curing. By reducing the amounts of citrate, phosphate and nitrates used in cigarette manufacture,” the associ­ation said, “the cost of product should de­crease, not increase.”

None of the seven tobacco companies replied to the physicians’ pleas to join their crusade with a commitment to move toward voluntary production of self-extinguishing cigarettes.

So now the stage has moved to the legislatures. Oregon is moving closer to a law requiring such fire-resistant products. In Congress, Rep. Joseph Moakley, (D-Mass.) has introduced a bill to require self-extinguishing features. And he’s not alone in this quest on Capitol Hill.

The National Association of Furniture Manufacturers wanted such a requirement 10 years ago because they were being blamed for fabric fires. The American Medical Association supports such a law. Predictably, the National Safety Council still is on the fence.

Many fire chiefs in cities throughout the country, however, are actively supporting a national campaign. Leading this campaign is Andrew McGuire, executive director of the Burn Council (San Fran­cisco General Hospital, San Francisco, Calif. 94110). He is forging a national coalition which includes trial lawyers, Jaycees and Junior Leagues.

The coalition is working with victims to hold public demonstrations at the time of cigarette fires that injure or kill children—the ultimate innocents.

If you wish to join this campaign and win, write to McGuire at the above ad­dress. He will be pleased to send you in­formation about this preventable tragedy and the people who are trying to do some­thing about it near your community.