THE BLOG
05/31/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Fire Safe Cigarette Laws: More Harm than Good

Flawed Harvard Study and Misrepresented Statistics behind Recent Legislation

Fire safe cigarettes or FSC laws seem like a great idea. The concept is that by making cigarettes less likely to burn, they are less likely to start fires, and laws requiring them would save lives.

The state of New York adopted the first FSC (fire standards compliant) cigarette law. New York officials felt it was best to not take responsibility for any toxicity testing, because of the time and expense involved in toxicity testing on human volunteers, and concerns over becoming the federal regulatory agency and any resulting liability.

The law went into effect on June 28, 2004. On January 24, 2005, the Harvard School of Public Health published a study on the effect of the law. The lead author of the study was director of Massachusetts Tobacco Control Program from 1986 to 2003, and the study was funded by American Legacy Foundation, and anti-smoking organization.

The study assessed the ability of cigarette manufacturers to produce cigarettes that met New York fire safety standards, and measured toxicity levels of those cigarettes. They tested four brands being sold in New York. One of them, Marlboro Reds, failed the New York fire safety standard test, making it illegal to sell in New York. The manufacturer, Philip Morris, should have been fined for breaking the law. Instead, the researchers went ahead and tested it for toxicity.

If the illegal brand was eliminated from the toxicity test, as it should have been, naphthalene levels in the smoke from FSC cigarettes shoot up 15.8% and carbon monoxide 12.6%. There were increases in all of the nineteen toxic compounds that were measured. That should not come as a surprise to anyone with a basic understanding of the science of combustion.

The study did state more research is needed on how people smoke FSC cigarettes versus non-FSC cigarettes, because people don't smoke like machines. This observation was made when researchers studied people smoking "light" cigarettes. While machines measured less tar and nicotine in "light" cigarettes, people would unconsciously compensate for that by inhaling more deeply or taking more frequent puffs, often getting more tar and nicotine than regular cigarettes.

Since FSC cigarettes are notorious for going out if they're not puffed on frequently, smokers are more than likely going to dramatically increase the amount of toxic compounds they inhale, including tar from the additional incomplete combustion. Nicotine delivery will also be increased, making it harder for them to quit.

Nevertheless, the study stated only in its key findings (and quoted by advocates pushing for FSC laws): "The majority of smoke toxic compounds (14) tested were not different between New York and Massachusetts brands. Five compounds were slightly higher in New York brands. There is no evidence that these increases affect the already highly toxic nature of cigarette smoke."

There actually is evidence. The body can detoxify chemicals up to a point, but if that threshold is breached, the body becomes overwhelmed and toxicity (poisoning) occurs. The increase in so many toxic compounds produced by FSC cigarettes greatly increases the likelihood and intensity of adverse health effects for smokers.

It would be difficult to say how any given FSC cigarette is made, because that is proprietary information. Burn-enhancing chemicals have been put on most commercial cigarettes for years, but simply removing them is not enough to make cigarettes fire standards compliant. Whatever way FSC cigarettes are made, the Harvard study proves that they produce more toxic compounds when smoked. A fundamental principle of toxicology is that the dose is the poison.

The key findings of the study also state (and also quoted by advocates pushing for FSC laws): "New York has experienced no decline in cigarette sales or excise tax payments since the standard went into effect, indicating that the New York RIP (reduced ignition propensity) cigarettes are acceptable to consumers."

The study only analyzed five months of data, not enough time to draw any meaningful conclusions. The New York State Department of Health's statistics show smoking rates in New York fell from 21.6% in 2003 to 16.8% in 2008.

Do FSC cigarettes prevent fires? Smoking-related fire deaths had been trending downward for many years, mainly because the smoking rate had also been falling. Other factors that contributed to the decline in the death rate include fire-safety education, fire-resistant fabrics, hard-wired smoke detectors, and firewalls.

The strategy of The Coalition for Fire Safe Cigarette (which pushed for FSC laws state by state) was to use New York's average smoking-related fire death rate for two years before the law went into effect, and then jump ahead four years for statistics to show how much the deaths have been reduced. They completely ignore how much the smoking rate had fallen in that time, which is the main reason the fire deaths have been reduced.

While the death rate has declined faster than the smoking rate, it declined at a faster rate before the law went into effect (16.5% in the four years before 2004 as opposed to 4.8% in the four years after 2004).

Also troubling is New York's smoking-related fire statistics show that in the four years before 2004, there was an average of 5.36 fires per year for every 10,000 people who smoked. In the four years after 2004, there was an average of 5.69. In 2008, there were 6.37 fires for every 10,000 people who smoked in New York. The frequency of a smoker's home catching on fire has actually increased since the law went into effect.

A common complaint of current FSC cigarette smokers is "hot coal drop off." New York officials were well aware of this problem when they passed the first FSC law. Their feeling was that an increased number of clothes and localized skin burns was a fair trade-off to potentially reduce the number of smoking-related fire deaths. Apparently, they did not consider what a distraction this could be for the one in five people who may be smoking when they're driving down the road. It creates a danger for everybody.

The increase in fires could be due to the problem of "hot coal drop off," or the fact that many more people are now rolling their own cigarettes, which are not typically well constructed. Another possibility is smokers may think an FSC cigarette is out (when it's actually still smoldering), and empty the ashtray. The uncertainty is dangerous. Or maybe FSC cigarettes just don't work as intended.

Before anything could be known about the true effect of an FSC law, The Coalition for Fire Safe Cigarettes urged state lawmakers across the country to adopt the New York model legislation, misleading them with a one-third reduction in deaths and the Harvard report key findings. The key findings were generally interpreted to mean FSC cigarettes are no more toxic than regular cigarettes, and an FSC law would have no significant impact on tax revenue.

To date, all fifty states and several countries have passed FSC laws, and they are being considered at the United States federal level and in other countries.

A group called Citizens Against Fire Safe Cigarettes started an online petition November 15, 2008 to repeal the laws. There are currently 25,620 signatures on it (and growing daily), filled with comments from angry people who say they were fine before they started smoking FSC cigarettes, and are now suffering from adverse health effects. Their complaints include coughing up blood, splitting headaches, nausea and vomiting, sores in the mouth and throat, winding up in the hospital, and disgust with their government.

Many smokers were unaware of the changes to their cigarettes until after they began suffering from adverse health effects. Their symptoms disappeared when they began to roll their own cigarettes. If FSC characteristics are required on rolling papers, it would push cigarettes even more into an already burgeoning black market, making cigarettes easier to obtain by underage smokers. It would also further erode respect for the government and rule of law.

When is it justifiable to penalize many to possibly save a few? Cooking-related fires are the number one cause of home fires. Should fire retardants be put in vegetable oil? People probably shouldn't eat fried food anyway; maybe some would quit. Irresponsible drivers kill innocent people. Should cars be banned?

FSC laws are dangerous for both smokers and non-smokers, and need to be repealed immediately. Everyone should contact their state and federal legislators, cigarette manufacturers, media outlets, Harvard School of Public Health, the National Fire Protection Association, state health departments, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, and the American Civil Liberties Union.

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