OLYMPIA – Washington smokers, already chafing from two recent tax increases and the nation’s toughest smoking ban, may soon face another change: a law requiring cigarettes to be self-extinguishing.
Two state legislators, one in the Senate, one in the House of Representatives, have proposed bills that would ban the selling or distribution of any cigarette that’s not “fire-safe.” These are specially made cigarettes that, unless puffed regularly by a smoker, stop smoldering. If you set them down, they tend to go out.
“We want to avoid fires caused by people smoking in bed or what-have-you,” said Sen. Jeanne Kohl-Welles, prime sponsor of Senate Bill 6164. “I think it’s something that makes a lot of sense.”
In the House, Rep. Geoff Simpson, D-Covington, has proposed a virtually identical bill: HB 2346.
In Spokane, longtime smoker Dolores Walker sees the proposals as just one more unwanted restriction. Freedom of choice, she said, is going down the tubes.
“Nonsmokers have pretty much got their own way now. Let it rest,” she said. “There’s not that many people that are stupid enough to smoke in bed.”
Kohl-Welles, a Seattle Democrat, said she’s sponsoring the bill at the request of fire chiefs. The need was underscored a couple of months ago, she said, when an elderly woman in Kohl-Welles’ neighborhood accidentally started a blaze with an unattended cigarette.
To her, self-extinguishing cigarettes are a logical extension of the kinds of public-safety laws that require sprinkler systems.
“When people smoke in an apartment, a nursing home, or even a single-family home, it could affect the lives of other people,” she said.
Nationwide, according to the Associated Press, about 900 Americans die and another 2,500 are hurt by fires started by unattended cigarettes.
Three states – New York, California and Vermont – have already passed laws requiring such cigarettes. Tobacco companies last year rushed to manufacture the new cigarettes, wrapped in special ultra-thin paper with “speed bump” bands that inhibit burning unless a smoker draws in air. Some smokers in New York – the first state to require the cigarettes – have complained about their cigarettes going out.
“That may be one price they have to pay,” said Kohl-Welles. “It’s an inconvenience and an annoyance, but you have to balance that with people’s lives.”
Dana Bolden, a spokesman for Philip Morris USA, said Friday that if regulators want to require such cigarettes, it should be done with a single, nationwide standard.
“We’re afraid that there might be a patchwork of various state regulations,” he said.
Acting state fire marshal Mike Matlick said the legislation sounds like a good idea.
“Based on the statistical data, there is a high potential to save lives,” he said. It’s clearly a good thing, he said, if a cigarette doesn’t continue to burn if it’s dropped into a seat cushion or similar place.
Of the 55 people who died in Washington fires last year, he said, 10 died in smoking-related blazes.
“It leads all other causes,” he said.
In second place is arson, with eight deaths last year, followed by cooking fires, with seven.
For Walker, 69, the state already has too many smoking-related laws.
“I’d be tempted to just up and move,” she said. “Idaho isn’t that far. At least until I lose my freedom there, too.”
She predicts that smokers will be unhappy with having to relight cigarettes if they set them down for a minute. They’ll find other ways to get regular cigarettes, she predicts.
“I think everybody would go to marijuana,” she joked. “That’s what it’s coming to.”
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