Fire-Safe Cigarettes Coming Soon

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Self-extinguishing cigarettes require special paper that one tobacco company is finding in short supply. They annoy some smokers by going out if you don't puff on them regularly. And they cost more to produce than regular cigarettes.

But major manufacturers Reynolds Tobacco, Philip Morris and Lorillard are scrambling to make and ship the special smokes to comply with a New York state law requiring that all cigarettes sold there after June 28 be self-extinguishing.

The state accounted for 4.3 percent of U.S. cigarette sales in 2002, making it too large a market to abandon. But the costs and drawbacks of the new cigarettes are sufficient that the companies say they do not plan to offer them in the other 49 states.

"This is an overwhelming concern right now for us," said Ellen Matthews, a spokeswoman for Reynolds Tobacco Co. of Winston-Salem, the nation's No. 2 cigarette maker. "A tremendous amount of issues needed to be addressed, among them finding an adequate supply of banded paper. This is affecting everything we are doing."

New York's regulations call for all cigarettes sold in the state to be wrapped in the special paper, in which ultra-thin bands work like speed bumps to slow the burning of cigarettes that are not being puffed.

A lit cigarette that is dropped onto bedding or a sofa can smolder unobtrusively for as long as 30 minutes before a fire erupts. Approximately 900 Americans die each year and another 2,500 are injured by fires started by cigarettes, according to the American Burn Association and the federal government.

In theory, if a smoker lights a self-extinguishing cigarette and falls asleep or leaves the cigarette unattended, it will go out on its own after a few minutes.

Greensboro-based Lorillard Tobacco Co. has been selling self-extinguishing cigarettes in New York state since March, company spokesman Steve Watson said.

"We haven't received any complaints, only a few inquiries from smokers whose cigarette self-extinguished while they were smoking them," he said.

For now, he said, the company's brands - including Newport, Kent and True - will be sold with the fire-safe paper only in New York.

Industry leader Philip Morris USA has been selling its Merit cigarette in self-extinguishing paper nationwide since 2000, during which time the brand's market share has shrunk.

Brendan McCormick, a spokesman for Richmond, Va.-based Philip Morris, said the company initially got complaints from Merit smokers who didn't like the fact that their cigarette went out if they didn't take regular puffs.

But he said that was only one of several factors involved in Merit's decline.

While Matthews said RJR - maker of Camel, Salem and Winston - is having trouble finding enough banded paper, Philip Morris and Lorillard both said they have steady suppliers.

Industry foes argue that offering banded cigarettes only in New York could lead to lawsuits by fire victims in states where the cigarettes are not sold.

"It has huge liability," said Andrew McGuire, head of the Trauma Foundation at San Francisco General Hospital, who began crusading for fire-safe cigarettes in 1979. "It's like they are saying they don't mind a little kid getting burned in Connecticut but it's OK to save them in New York."

McGuire contends that the industry has a financial interest in non-banded cigarettes that burn on their own while unattended, forcing smokers to light up more often.

But the manufacturers question whether the new-style cigarettes are really safer.

Although they are shown to go out "under very specific lab conditions," Matthews said, that does not mean that they should be considered incapable of starting a fire.

One reason companies have resisted introducing the cigarettes is fear that smokers who use them will become complacent, Matthews said.

"That is going to be our biggest challenge, that people are going to be lulled into a false sense of complacency" when they smoke the self-extinguishing cigarettes and become more careless with them, she said.

Philip Morris is being sued in Los Angeles Superior Court by a woman who claims the paper used in Merits actually creates a greater risk of fire and injury.

According to the lawsuit by Leena Gurevitch, the cigarette's design causes clumps of partly-burned tobacco to fall from the ends, making it more of a fire hazard.

McCormick said he was aware of the lawsuit, which was filed last month, but said the company has received no "reports about fires caused by the coal falling off the Merit brand."

"We are optimistic that based on the facts and the law that the case will be dismissed," he said.

McCormick said supplying banded paper for all New York-bound cigarettes will cost Philip Morris several million dollars, which the company will absorb. Matthews was unsure how Reynolds would cover its increased costs. Both companies declined to be specific about exactly how much the new cigarettes will cost them.

Cigarettes in New York are already among the most expensive in the nation, averaging $5.66 per 20-cigarette pack, according to a January report by the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids.

Ultimately, all three manufacturers said they would prefer a national standard instead of as many as 50 different state laws that could present major production and marketing headaches.

That kind of national regulation could come under proposed legislation in Congress that would end the federal tobacco price support system and give the Food and Drug Administration regulatory power over tobacco.

Matthews said she knows of no other state with immediate plans to match New York's regulation. In Massachusetts, lawmakers have been trying for years to pass legislation that would mandate the sale of self-extinguishing cigarettes.

By Paul Nowell