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Ralph Nader > In the Public Interest > Fire-Safe Cigarettes

The fire-safe cigarette may be on its way to market in a few years. Such an event would reduce the nearly 2000 fatalities and many more burn injuries that flow from the 46,000 fires which cigarettes start, due to careless or tipsy smokers, each year.

What has revived hope for such a cigarette is a recent federal study group which concluded that a fire-safe cigarette is economically and technologically possible. Three representatives of the tobacco industry were on the panel of 15 scientists which reached such a conclusion. Several hundreds of these cigarettes, produced by two tobacco companies for the study group, are now in a freezer at the National Bureau of Standards near Washington.

The tobacco industry’s revised position, in the light of these findings, is that such a cigarette is not commercially feasible because of alleged differences in “feel” and “taste.”

There is action on other fronts. Bills are pending in Minnesota, New York and Wisconsin to require that cigarettes meet such standards. Back in 1984, the New York state legislature missed by one vote in passing such a law.

At the Congressional level, bills are in the hopper to require that the Consumer Product Safety Commission establish national fire-safe requirements for cigarettes. Senator Alan Cranston (D-CA) has long championed such legislation to sharply reduce what he says is the single leading cause of fires in America — a nation which has the highest fire fatalities per capita of any industrial nation in Western Europe and the Pacific rim.

By contrast, Cong. Frederick Boucher (D-VA) has filed legislation which calls for more government study to ‘realize the commercial feasibility of fire-safe cigarettes.” This is an obvious delaying tactic for a Congressman from a tobacco state. Just coincidentally, the Tobacco Institute declared that the industry has no intention to do any more fire-safety research unless the government sponsors it.

So the forces pro and con are drawn with the tobacco lobby arrayed against numerous fire safety and consumer groups.

One major potential player in this controversy has been reluctant to stand tall — the property/casualty insurance companies. A story related by Andrew McGuire, executive director of the Trauma Foundation, is instructive here.

In 1982, McGuire, a long time advocate of injury prevention, called the chief executive of Fireman’s Fund, a large insurance company, to ask whether the company would support the Cranston legislation. McGuire was shunted to one John Kennedy in charge of legislative affairs. Kennedy replied that the goal of a fire-safe cigarette was of real interest but that it is a federal issue and the company doesn’t get involved in federal legislation. When McGuire responded that Fireman’s could just as well support a similar bill in the California legislature, Kennedy said that the company could not do that because dealing with the tobacco industry is a national policy matter.

Fireman’s disinclination to put muscle and principle behind measures to reduce fire casualties is typical of much of the insurance companies who make big money writing fire insurance policies. Harvard scholar, David Hemenway has written of this indifference by explaining that. these companies make more money from premiums when there are enough fires to remind property owners of the need for ample insurance coverage.

This is not the first time that profits have gotten in the way of loss prevention by the insurance firms.