Tobacco lobby crushes fire safety measure

In December 1999 a Minneapolis house fire killed an 8-year-old boy. The boy’s father begged him to leap from a second-story window, but the boy was too scared to jump. News reports described the helpless father’s anguish. The cause of the fire was an unattended cigarette.

This young boy is not alone. Last January, a cigarette fire in Aitkin, Minn., killed a first-grade student as well as his father who was trying to rescue him. These are not isolated tragedies. Cigarettes are the leading cause of fatal fires. In the last decade, 176 Minnesotans were killed from unattended cigarettes that ignited deadly blazes.

These fires could be prevented if cigarettes were not designed to keep burning when unattended. Last year, Merit made some simple changes in the design of its cigarette paper, causing the cigarette to stop burning if it is not being smoked.

However, other manufacturers have refused to follow suit and have aggressively fought requirements that cigarettes be designed to minimize the risk of starting fires. Fifteen years ago, the tobacco lobby defeated Minnesota legislation requiring such standards. Now, after some legal defeats for the tobacco industry, one would hope they had lost some political power. No such luck.

Fifteen years and 230 Minnesota deaths after the tobacco lobby last defeated legislation on this issue, Rep. Dennis Ozment, R-Rosemount, a retired firefighter, and I introduced legislation requiring cigarettes sold in Minnesota to meet fire resistance standards within three years. Rep. Ozment spoke eloquently about the pain of firefighters recovering the bodies of people they couldn’t save.

Firefighters, fire chiefs and the state fire marshal united behind this legislation. Firefighters know too well the 230 Minnesotans killed in these fires are not statistics but mothers, fathers, sons and daughters whose deaths leave a void in the lives of their families.

When the bill came before a Senate committee, the tobacco lobby was out in force. Tobacco lobbyists might have outnumbered the senators at the hearing. But none of the Minnesota tobacco lobbyists said a word. They had already talked with most members of the committee in private. Perhaps they were too ashamed to testify publicly against this proposal.

Instead, they flew in a high-powered attorney from Washington, D.C., to do the dirty work of providing public testimony. Jim Goold, the lawyer who testified, told the committee we might make cigarettes more dangerous by passing the bill.

Imagine the chutzpah – a tobacco lobbyist lecturing Minnesotans about the risk of making cigarettes dangerous! The industry that produces and promotes the most deadly consumer product in history while opposing any health regulation is now claiming to be concerned about public health?

Goold testified, “People have patented things like putting asbestos in cigarettes. And there is a history with fire measures of finding that if they are rushed into existence they can create unintended problems. Asbestos was a fire safety product.”

Of course, fifteen years after the last push for fire-resistant cigarettes, allowing three more years for the industry to meet these standards isn’t really “rushing” anything. And yes, “people have patented things like putting asbestos in cigarettes.” But it wasn’t people concerned about safety; it was a cigarette manufacturer that deliberately put asbestos into cigarettes, and not for fire resistance purposes.

The Minnesota legislation was modeled after a New York law. Unlike Minnesota, California and other states, New York was successful in passing fire-resistant standards. How? In New York, the widows of three firefighters who died fighting a cigarette fire were at the capitol to demand action.

Here in Minnesota, 83 firefighters were injured during the past decade fighting cigarette fires. Do we really need to wait for firefighter deaths before we stand up to the tobacco lobby?


Sen. John Marty (DFL) is Roseville’s state senator
(District 54).
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