In the news

USA Today
Peter Eisler

ROCKVILLE, Md. — The story line for the fire at Francis DeLeo's home in February was familiar to Montgomery County firefighters: a senior citizen, a cigarette, a tragic death.

The blaze that killed DeLeo, 84, was the county's sixth fatal fire in the past 12 months. Each victim was at least 75, and investigators found that all but one fire began with a cigarette.

Firefighters had high hopes for a bill in the state Legislature to require that all cigarettes sold in the state be "fire safe." Those cigarettes are designed to be less likely to set a sofa or trash can on fire because they go out quickly if someone isn't smoking them.

The Maryland bill died without a final vote, however, when the legislative session ended last month. Amid opposition from tobacco interests, similar bills have failed in many states and in Congress.

That may be changing. New York began requiring fire-safe cigarettes in 2004, and Vermont followed May 1. A California law requiring fire-safe cigarettes takes effect at year's end, and a similar bill that passed in Illinois awaits the governor's signature

Maryland's firefighters continue to wait for action.

"This is something that can save lives," says Pete Piringer, Montgomery County Fire and Rescue spokesman.

May have been preventable

At DeLeo's house, investigators found that a discarded cigarette butt fell on a couch and started the fire. DeLeo died from his injuries 17 days later.

"It's very likely that a fire-safe cigarette would have prevented that fire from getting out of control," Piringer says.

Though the smoking rate among people 65 and older is less than half the rate of adults younger than 65, seniors account for about 40% of those who die in cigarette fires, according to the National Fire Protection Association, a research group that helps develop fire codes.

Most of the 300 to 350 seniors killed each year in cigarette fires die in private homes. But cigarettes also are the leading cause of fire deaths in institutions that care for seniors. A USA TODAY analysis of more than 100 fatal fires since 1999 in nursing homes, assisted-living facilities and senior housing shows that about 50% began with a cigarette.

"If you look at the big wave of baby boomers, it's something people need to pay attention to," Montgomery County Fire Marshal Michael Love says.

In the past 18 months, lawmakers in at least 15 states have considered bills to require fire-safe cigarettes. But opponents often are using procedural maneuvers to block votes on the bills as legislative sessions have wound down.

In Maryland, for example, a fire-safe cigarette bill passed the state House 124-12 last month, but two senators blocked final votes as the legislative session closed.

R.J. Reynolds, the nation's second-largest tobacco company, led the lobbying to kill the bill, says Kathleen Dachille, who runs the University of Maryland's Legal Resource Center for Tobacco Regulation, Litigation and Advocacy, which supports tighter restrictions.

"The delay tactic was adopted ... because (opponents) didn't think they had the votes to kill it," Dachille says.

Philip Morris, the largest U.S. cigarette-maker, has taken a different approach. In Maryland and other states, the company hasn't pushed to kill such legislation. It instead seeks to make sure that all state bills would apply the same fire-safe standards as New York.

The company's goal is to avoid "conflicting state regulations ... (so) manufacturers don't have to make different products" for each state, a company statement says.

Congressional Action
Philip Morris officials declined to be interviewed. The statement says Congress needs to set national standards for burn rates and other aspects of fire-safe cigarettes.

But bills for fire-safe cigarettes have been introduced repeatedly in Congress. None has gotten industry backing. And none has gotten a vote.

"The tobacco industry still has a veto in this Congress," says one sponsor, Rep. Edward Markey, D-Mass. "Once consumers realize tobacco companies are selling safer cigarettes in (some states) and more dangerous cigarettes everywhere else, they will start demanding a national standard."

R.J. Reynolds officials say fire-safe requirements are simply unnecessary. They note that even cigarettes deemed "fire safe" can ignite trash or furniture. "A more effective means to address (cigarette fires) would be through education," spokesman David Howard says.

Maryland state Sen. George Della, one of the lawmakers who held up the bill that died when the session ended, says tobacco lobbyists' questions needed more review.

One issue, he says, is whether "the fumes that come off this (fire-safe cigarette) paper could possibly be more hazardous to your health." He also wants to determine whether the bill's backers have a financial stake in producing that paper.

Della acknowledges getting campaign money from tobacco firms "through the years." But "I'm not owned by anyone," he says. "I call them as I see them."

Contributing Research: Will Risser

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