With Standards Uncertain, Fire-Safe Cigarettes - Mandated In New York - Still A Long Way Off

One week from today, according to a 2000 law, New York was to be the first state in the nation to mandate all cigarettes sold here meet fire safety standards. But it is not going to happen.

Secretary of State Randy Daniels, during a public hearing sponsored by the Assembly Committees on Insurance and Governmental Operations, said his office is currently reviewing the 7,500 pages of comments made on new ignition strength standards proposed on Dec. 31, 2002.

His spokesman, Peter Contantakes, said there is not a definitive time when the new standards will take effect, or if they will be modified.

"I wish they would stop dragging their feet ... people are falling asleep and they are being killed because the cigarettes do not self-extinguish," said Fred Pettingell, a firefighter at S.W. Pitts Hose Co. in Latham and member of the Firemen's Association of New York State's Fire Prevention and Life Safety Committee. "That is why we have been fighting for this for over 10 years, probably closer to 20."

In addition to economic issues related to the cost of getting rid of non-fire-safe cigarettes and the logistics of making the transition to selling only fire-safe smokes, Daniels said many of the comments were directed at the testing procedure New York used to determine what exactly a fire-safe cigarette is.

He said the state had to devise its own methodology because testing the ignition strength of the approximately 1,300 styles of cigarettes sold in the state had never been done before.

The state ended up using a sample of 200 different cigarettes, representing 85 percent of the market, and came up with a fire-safe standard that says a cigarette must self extinguish on 10 layers of filter paper at least 75 percent of the time.

"If this standard were in effect today, approximately 95 percent of the cigarettes currently marketed in the state could not be sold, including all the top-selling brands," Daniels said. "Throughout this process, we have done all we can to overcome barriers, foreseen and unforeseen.

"Doing this correctly, getting the science right, even if it takes some additional time, will prove to be in the best interest of all New Yorkers," Daniels added. The most common way to make a smoke fire-safe is to modify the paper at certain locations. The cigarette would burn normally until it reaches one of the "bands" that would cause it to extinguish if it is not actively being smoked.

There is some disagreement on whether July 1 is the drop-dead date for fire-safe cigarettes. According to a press release issued by Gov. George E. Pataki on Jan. 1, 2001, "such safety standards shall take effect no later than July 1, 2003, in order to allow manufacturers time to comply with the new standards."

But Daniels said the state must adhere to the State Administrative Procedure Act, which requires that the state receive public comment and that the agency respond to each comment. The public comment period was extended 60 days until April 15, 2003. Assemblyman Pete Grannis, D-Manhattan, who has been fighting for fire-safe smokes since 1982, faults the Department of State and the Office of Fire Prevention and Control for not getting it in place on time.

"Why did the department wait until the last possible minute to publish its proposed safety regulation?" he asked. "In the decades I have been working on this life-saving measure, hundreds of people have died and thousands more (been) injured, maimed and lost property due to the tobacco industry's obstinate failure to make a safer product."

According to the National Fire Protection Association, cigarette fires cause close to 1,000 deaths and 3,000 injuries a year nationwide. Property damage from cigarette-sparked fires is estimated to be more than $500 million.