State to require fire-safe cigarettes

Minnesota has become the latest state to require fire-safe cigarettes -- which will extinguish themselves after a period of time. Advocates say the move will help prevent fire-related accidents and deaths.
Photo illustration by Bruno Vincent/Getty Images

In a year when the debate over a statewide smoking ban was front and center in the Legislature, another tobacco-related issue was barely mentioned, even though it's been debated for 20 years.

"This is the longest life of any bill that I've seen, from start to finish," says its sponsor, Sen. John Marty, DFL-Roseville, who has been pushing for the fire-safe cigarette since 1987.

State Sen. John Marty, DFL-Roseville, has fought for 20 years to gain passage of the fire-safe cigarette bill. This year, it was finally approved.
MPR Photo/Tim Pugmire

It may seem counterintuitive to require tobacco companies to make a cigarette that stops burning -- but Marty and others say it will improve public safety. He says cigarettes that self-extinguish are less likely to start a fire.

"Smoking is the No. 1 cause of fire-related fatalities in Minnesota -- and it's 10, 15, 20 lives a year," says Marty.

For years, firefighters from across the state have worked with Marty to persuade lawmakers to pass the bill. They would relate tragic stories of children who died because a smoker was careless.

Mike Stockstead, with the Minnesota Professional Fire Fighters, says the hope is the law will reduce those fire-related deaths.

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"The largest majority of cigarette-started fires are from unintended cigarettes that were dropped in the couch, people fell asleep in bed, fell out of an ashtray. It's amazing how significant this will be," says Stockstead.

"This is the longest life of any bill that I've seen, from start to finish."

Each year the bill came up in the past, the tobacco companies worked hard to snuff it out.

Tobacco company lobbyists have testified that the technology wasn't in place to make a fire-safe cigarette; that the chemicals used to create the cigarette would cause further harm to smokers; and that a patchwork quilt of state laws would make it difficult for tobacco companies to follow one standard.

This year -- there was no opposition. The bill was barely mentioned inside the hallways of the Capitol.

Bill Phelps, a spokesman for Philip Morris, says his company would prefer to see a national fire-safe cigarette standard enacted.

"We support a uniform national standard as the best way to address the issue. However, while we support that national standard, we don't oppose state legislation as long as it's consistent with requirements in place in other states," says Phelps.

In 2004, the state of New York started requiring tobacco companies to sell fire-safe cigarettes. Since that time, several other states -- now including Minnesota -- have passed similar laws.

Minnesota's law doesn't specify how to make the cigarette fire safe, but studies have found that cigarettes sold in New York are made with denser paper.

Anti-smoking advocate Jeanne Weigum says tobacco companies abandoned their opposition because their arguments against fire-safe cigarettes went up in flames as more and more states passed the laws.

"The big miracle is there are fire-safe cigarettes in Canada, in California and in New York. The tobacco industry has lost," says Weigum. "They know it. They know when to cut and run, and they've cut and run."

Minnesota's law will take effect in December 2008.

Sen. Marty says it's bittersweet that a bill he's lobbied to pass for 20 years is now law. He says he wonders how many lives would have been saved if the bill had become law two decades ago.