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'Fire-safe' cigarettes required by Florida law today

A 75-year-old Korean War veteran from Largo calls out desperately to his wife in the next room. His back is on fire and smoke is filling the room.

She tries to help but can't.

The house is engulfed.

The wife is widowed.

The reason: cigarette ashes on his mattress.

It's a story all too common for firefighters — beds, rooms, couches engulfed by the smoldering embers of a dropped cigarette.

A new Florida law aims to end that trend. Starting today, any cigarette sold in the state is required to meet so-called "fire-safe" standards — a construction that slows down its burn rate and, when not puffed, causes it to self-extinguish.

While smokers may not like the bother of lighting and re-lighting their 3-inch tobacco sticks when they burn out, it's no surprise local fire safety officials welcome the change.

"Having a smoke alarm is helpful," Capt. Bill Wade said. "But having the cigarette self-extinguish is even better."

Between 700 and 900 people die annually and 3,000 are hurt in U.S. fires ignited by cigarettes. In Pinellas County alone, the number of fires caused by abandoned cigarettes was 133 in 2008 and 97 in 2009.

Injuries are high when tobacco products are involved, Wade said, because where cigarettes are, so are people.

St. Petersburg Fire Rescue Lt. Joel Granata said cigarette fire victims are often surprised by how much damage one little cigarette can cause.

"A lot of them are like, 'Oh my God, I didn't know that could do that,' " he said.

But the National Fire Protection Association says it is the leading cause of home fire deaths.

Florida, which passed the law in 2008, is among the last states to take the step. New York started the trend in 2004 and other states followed.

Florida is among 12 states where the standards take effect for the first time today.

Only Wyoming remains, according to the Coalition for Fire-Safe Cigarettes.

Cigarette manufacturers say the new design will not translate to a more expensive product.

Companies are addressing the requirement by wrapping cigarettes with two or three thin bands of less-porous paper that act as "speed bumps" to slow down a burning cigarette.

The speed bumps help the cigarette stop burning when the smoker stops puffing.

Wade said the first concern is making sure people properly extinguish their smokes. But when that fails, a stop-gap like this is helpful.

Even Maryette Ables, president of FORCES Inc., which stands for Fight Ordinances and Restrictions to Control and Eliminate Smoking, doesn't have any strong objections to the change.

"It's a major aggravation," she said of the cigarette's propensity to go out. But it's just a blip in the fight over smokers' rights, she said.

Smoker Alex Parker doesn't mind the idea, either.

Parker, 21, of Tampa's Sulphur Springs neighborhood, was sitting on his front porch in October when he saw flames engulf his neighbor's home, causing $60,000 in damage.

No one was hurt. But the family that lived there was forced to move, all because a cigarette was left on a couch.

The incident didn't change Parker's habits. He said he smokes in bed, but smokes so fast that he doesn't worry about unattended cigarettes.

The pack-a-day smoker said the new cigarette design sounds good to him — especially if it means it will last longer.

Rebecca Catalanello can be reached at rcatalanello@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3383.

'Fire-safe' cigarettes required by Florida law today 12/31/09 [Last modified: Thursday, December 31, 2009 10:28pm]
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