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Legislature considers bill to snuff out unsafe cigarettes

Oregon is trying to kick a nasty habit in the butt.

State fire officials are hoping to pass a new law that would allow only 'fire-safe' cigarettes to be sold in the state, something they hope will cut back on the number of preventable deaths caused by cigarette fires.

The Senate Commerce Committee discussed the proposal, House Bill 2163, during a hearing and work session Monday in Salem.

The bill passed in a 58-0 vote Feb. 22 in the House.

Members of the Oregon Fire Safety Coalition are keeping their fingers crossed that the Senate will also support the bill as a similar measure passed on the Senate floor in 2005.

'It should have already been passed, but it got rat-holed in 2005 by the speaker of the House,' said Tom Whelan, a retired captain with the Salem Fire Department who has worked to get the legislation passed. 'This time, I've got a feeling it's going to make it, and it could be a unanimous decision.

'Its time has arrived.'

According to State Fire Marshal Nancy Orr, cigarettes are a leading cause of structural fires in Oregon as well as the culprit behind many forest and brush fires.

They are also the leading cause of home fire deaths and injuries in Oregon. From 2001 through 2005, there were 103 injuries and 29 fatalities from cigarette-ignited home fires.

'Most people who die in fires in this country die in residential settings, and cigarettes are the leading cause of fatal residential fires,' said Tim Birr, a retired division chief who served as the communication services director for Tualatin Valley Fire and Rescue. 'I believe those of us in the fire service have a duty to pursue any mechanism that can prevent fires and save lives - no matter how connected and affluent a particular industry might be.'

In his 30 years with the fire service, Birr felt pursuing measures that would prevent fires from happening in the first place was a top priority.

Birr worked closely with Whelan and Portland trial attorney Chuck Tauman to raise awareness of the issue and need for fire-safe cigarette legislation.

'The sad part is that one in four of the victims of these fires aren't the smokers who start them,' Birr said. 'They're the children sleeping upstairs, the neighbors in the apartment next door and sometimes even responding firefighters.

'In an urban area like ours where so many people live in multifamily housing, this issue ought to concern everyone.'

A good issue

In 2004, New York enacted legislation requiring cigarettes to meet a nationally recognized standard. Since then, California, Illinois, Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Vermont as well as Canada have all adopted similar laws for fire-safe cigarettes.

'The tide has finally turned, and nationally this issue has gotten tremendous legs,' Birr said.

Fire-safe cigarettes work by using two or three thin bands of less-porous paper in the wrapper that act as 'speed bumps' to slow down a burning cigarette. When left unattended, a fire-safe cigarette will extinguish when the burning tobacco reaches one of these speed bumps.

In contrast, a conventional cigarette will continue to burn when left unattended.

Tualatin Valley Fire and Rescue is one of many fire districts across the state to support adoption of HB 2163.

'We have had firsthand experience - our department has responded to three fatal fires in the last two years started by cigarettes,' said Karen Eubanks, fire district spokeswoman. 'Legislation requiring cigarettes to self-extinguish is expected to significantly reduce the likelihood of fire deaths, injuries and property losses from unintentional fires.'