Where There's Smoke ...

LONDON -- Tobacco companies could have made self-extinguishing cigarettes decades ago, which would have prevented fires and saved thousands of lives, but they chose not to, according to researchers. Instead they opposed moves and tried to delay legislation that would have made cigarettes safer and fire-proof, the researchers added.

"A fire-safe cigarette with demonstrated consumer acceptability was developed years ago, and the tobacco industry did not place it on the market," said Geoffrey Ferris Wayne of the Massachusetts Tobacco Control Program in Boston.

More than two decades ago, cigarette companies had identified factors to improve the safety of cigarettes but the Tobacco Institute, a U.S. industry body, opposed fire-safe legislation in 1982 on the grounds that the technology didn't exist, according to Reuters. "Thousands of lives can be saved with the adoption of fire safe cigarettes,," Wayne said in a study reported in the journal Tobacco Control.

According to the findings, tobacco companies said they did not produce safer cigarettes because they would be unacceptable to consumers and would be more toxic than normal cigarettes. The firms were also worried about the costs of introducing new technology needed to make them and fears about liability. "At the same time, the tobacco industry engaged in a long-term strategy to neutralize their opposition on this issue and thus delay legislation of a fire-safe cigarette," Wayne added.

A spokeswoman for British American Tobacco told Reuters the company has been doing research into fire-safe cigarettes for the past 20 years in the United States. "But the U.S. government has still to come up with a test regarding these kinds of cigarettes," she added. "Many governments around the world have put in considerable legislation to insure the use of flame retardant material in furniture design with a view to fire safety."

Fires caused by cigarettes kill about 1,000 people each year in the United States alone and cost billions of dollars in property damage and healthcare costs, according to the study. Most occur when a mattress or furniture is ignited by a burning cigarette. A fire-safe cigarette would self-extinguish if it is not puffed or not ignite furniture if it is left smoldering.

"The industry has not acted voluntarily on this issue and lacking federal legislation, burn victims could initiate product liability suits, thus forcing the industry to institute tough fire safety standards," Wayne said.