Editorial: California Should Adopt A Fire-Safe Cigarette Law Like New York State’s

Becky O’Malley
Tuesday July 13, 2004

Last week a Berkeley woman died in a fire which started in her bedroom. Neighbors said she was a cigarette smoker. Fire Marshal David Orth has not yet definitively reported on what caused the fire, but he thinks a dropped cigarette was the most probable cause. Statistically speaking, there’s a very good chance it was the cigarette, because many, many fires are started by dropped cigarettes.  

Exactly 25 years ago this month, Mother Jones magazine published an article which I wrote, “Cigarettes and Sofas,” documenting the relationship between cigarettes and fires. It reported on “self-extinguishing” cigarettes, designed to go out if not actively puffed on by the smoker, and on how the tobacco industry had successfully suppressed information about them.  

The article was based on preliminary research by Andrew McGuire of San Francisco’s Trauma Foundation, and my own research was funded by $3,500 from the Oakland Firefighter’s Union, spearheaded by the enthusiasm of member Ray Gatchalian (who died too young in an auto accident last year.) At the time it was published, it got a lot of attention, leading to several television adaptations and receiving an award from Project Censored, which at the time (and perhaps still) spotlighted stories which were ignored by the mainstream press. It was reprinted from time to time over the years—Mother Jones offered me a $12 royalty check for reprints not too long ago. There were lawsuits by victims of cigarette fires, and bills in Congress and in state legislatures to require cigarettes to be self-extinguishing. As long as big tobacco was powerful and well-funded, nothing happened. 

It took more than 25 years and a lot of work by a lot of people to begin to solve this relatively straightforward safety problem. That’s somewhat of a cautionary tale for those who believe in the power of the press. Just finding out the truth is not enough, as Andrew McGuire, who first pulled the statistics together, can tell you. Without the sponsorship of the firefighters, Andrew’s research might never have seen the light of day in print. Even after the facts were before the public, both in print and on television, it took court cases and lobbying legislatures to get anything accomplished.  

Just this June, 25 years later, with the tobacco industry now on the defensive, New York’s state law mandating fire-safe cigarettes finally came on line. It’s about time. New York has a big percentage of the smoking market, so this law will save many lives. Canada’s Parliament also passed such a law in April of this year. California should be next. With both California and New York on the books, it’s likely the American tobacco industry would find it practical to give in and make all cigarettes sold nationwide self-extinguishing. Sponsoring such a bill would be a good project for Berkeley Assemblywoman Loni Hancock or for Oakland’s peppy Wilma Chan. 

And all you Berkeley puritans, don’t write in and say self-righteously that smokers get what they deserve, that they should just stop smoking. Of course that’s true, but cigarette fires also claim many innocent victims along with smokers. If you’re able to get a bill passed banning smoking altogether, that might work to stop cigarette fires, but based on the length of time it’s taken to get the first fire-safe cigarette bill passed, don’t hold your breath. 

—Becky O’Malley