By M. Alex Johnson Reporter
msnbc.com
updated 1/27/2009 6:31:09 AM ET 2009-01-27T11:31:09

Josh Hubbard examined a cigarette from the pack he had just bought. They were different.

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“It’s got little rings around it in a couple of spots,” he said, standing in the parking lot of Butch’s Corner Food Market in Williamsburg, Ky.

Those rings are thick bands of low-permeability paper, and they are rapidly appearing on cigarettes across the country. The idea is that if you set down your smoke — or fall asleep in bed with it still lighted — the cigarette will extinguish itself when the flame reaches one of the rings.

In effect, the rings act as speed bumps. To keep a cigarette lighted, you have to keep puffing. When you stop, it goes out by itself in about 5 minutes.

Fire officials and public health watchdogs say the self-extinguishing cigarettes are a good idea — so good that in the last six years, 37 states and the District of Columbia have enacted laws requiring that they be sold; in five other states, such laws are under consideration or await the governor’s signature.

There are no reliable statistical data demonstrating that fire-safe cigarette laws actually reduce fires. The National Fire Injury Reporting System relies on local fire departments to determine the cause of fires and to report the data. 

A dearth of hard data
And injuries and deaths due to fires began declining for several years before such laws came on the scene, making researchers reluctant to declare any cause-and-effect relationship.

But fire investigators and public safety officials point to research conducted by the Harvard University School of Public Health, which found that only 10 percent of cigarettes sold in New York, the first state to enact a safer cigarette law, burned down to the filter if left unattended, compared to 99.8 percent of cigarettes without the bands.

Common sense dictates that cigarette are less likely to cause fires if they snuff themselves out, advocates say, meaning fewer deaths, injuries and property loss. John R. Hall, director of fire analysis and research for the National Fire Protection Association, projects that if fire-safe cigarettes were available in all 50 states, about 1,000 lives would be saved each year nationwide.

“We’re not trying to tell someone they can’t smoke. That’s not what we’re doing,” said Laura Mason, the deputy fire marshal of Tyler, Texas, who supports the state's law mandating fire-safe cigarettes. “What we want to do is not have to go and explain to family members and friends why these people died in a fire from something we found a way to make safer.”

New smokes ‘taste like crap’
Side by side with a traditional cigarette, you can’t tell much difference. But on the box, the letters FSC above the bar code denote Fire Safe Cigarettes; in some states, it’s RFP for Reduced Fire Propensity.

“I do understand why they did it, as a safety precaution,” said Katie West, another customer at Butch’s, who said the new cigarettes were a good idea. But there’s one big problem, she said: “The cigarettes don’t taste near as good as they used to.”

And that’s the rub. Asked to rate the new cigarettes, many smokers said they left an unpleasant coppery taste in the mouth.

“It’s nasty,” said Jewell Robertson of Paducah, Ky. Or as Hubbard put it, they “taste like crap.”

And for many smokers, the  feature that fire officials like is a pain in the neck.

“They constantly go out, and I have to relight them all the time,” said Kathy McDaniel of Midland, Texas.

“If you’re not smoking on it regularly, like 30 to 35 seconds, it goes out pretty quick,” said Ron Calkins of Erie, Pa. “You have to light them every once in a while.”

Victor Freeman, the owner of Butch’s, said his customers were annoyed with having to continually relight their cigarettes, but he’s found a way to capitalize.

“We’ll sell more lighters,” he said.

Options going up in smoke
New York kicked off the movement 4½ years ago, when it became the first state to require tobacco companies to make the self-extinguishing cigarettes. As the laws have spread across the land, many smokers have driven to neighboring states to get their smokes. That’s what happened in Kentucky after its law went into effect in April 2008.

Freeman said customers regularly ask him whether he has any leftover traditional cigarettes. When they learn that he doesn’t, some make the 12-mile drive to Jellico in neighboring Tennessee — where safe cigarettes won’t be mandated until next Jan. 1 — even though cigarettes are more expensive in Tennessee, which collects 62 cents a pack in taxes.

The drive to Jellico takes only a few minutes and the difference in price is small, “so they don’t care,” said Dave Fox, a cashier at an Exxon station in Jellico.

That may not be an option for long, though, whether or not the 13 states without fire-safe cigarettes laws fall into line: With the tide firmly against them, the tobacco companies, which initially opposed the laws, now say it is too much trouble to make different cigarettes for different states. As a result, they predicted that by Jan. 1, 2010, all cigarettes sold in stores in the United States will be self-extinguishing.

Internet picks up the torch
Which is why some smokers give special thanks for the Internet.

They are turning to online sites like FSCCigarettes.com, which complains: “It’s kind of BS that we the smokers have to put up with more unnecessary and probably unhealthy additive being added to our smokes (That we pay good money for by the way) just because some junkies can’t properly extinguish there [sic] cigarettes.”

And they are venting on online forums like one run by the Smokers Club, which argues that “there is no end to the fictions nicotine ninnies will create to justify their venomous hatred of smokers.”

One poster on the site wrote that if you believe fire-safe cigarettes are safer than traditional cigarettes, “you might want to have your doctor check to see if you still have a brain.”

And they are doing business with companies like C.C. Enterprises, a North Carolina retailer that operates Web sites like Carolina Cartons and Cartons 4 Free, which advertise that “most of our cigarettes DO NOT use Fire Safe Paper.”

Shipments come in plain brown packages “with no references to cigarettes on the box at all,” they promise.

Meanwhile, a group calling itself Citizens Against Fire Safe Cigarettes said it had collected more than 1,600 signatures on an online petition seeking to repeal fire-safe cigarette laws. Last week, the organization put out a call on its blog for “crucial support from a Scientist with a PH.D. and/or a medical doctor who is willing to come forward and offer their support.”

In a posting on the group’s online forum, a Texas woman wrote that “the new chemicals are making me very ill, and quitting is harder than I ever imagined.”

“It’s time for the government to take responsibility for the bad decisions they have made,” she added. “They used smokers as guinea pigs, and now they expect us to roll over and drop dead.”

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