Cigarettes will still kill many of the Oregonians who choose to smoke, but at least they are less likely to die in flames starting this week. A bill signed by Oregon Governor Ted Kulongoski and supported by Clackamas County Fire District #1 will mandate that all cigarettes sold statewide incorporate technology to reduce the risk of fires.
'We prefer to call them safer cigarettes - not safe cigarettes - because cigarettes will never be completely safe,' said Fire Marshal Scott Weninger, with CCFD #1. 'They will still cause cancer, and they will still start fires.'
According to Weninger, eight people have died as a result of fires in the district's service area in the last five years.
'Of those eight, five died in fires started by smoldering cigarettes,' he said. 'This is huge - it's absolutely huge. As I told the committee when I testified down in Salem, the numbers that get reported statewide are probably low.'
Weninger explained that cigarette-caused fires are likely underreported for several reasons, beginning with the investigation.
'It takes a lot of training and expertise to recognize the cause of a fire,' he said. 'When a cigarette is the cause, there is the possibility that the butt gets destroyed, or a firefighter inadvertently moves it, or it just gets lost in the debris.'
Another problem stems from how fire departments report the outcomes of incidents.
'If a person is alive when we shut the doors on the ambulance, we don't record a fatality,' said Weninger. 'While I was doing research for this bill, I followed up on one case involving a cigarette fire, and one of the investigators told me that the victim had died in the hospital a few days later.
'We had just put that down as a critical injury.'
To reduce the risk of fire, the new cigarettes will extinguish themselves if they are not actively being smoked. The paper casing around the tobacco contain 'speed bumps' at quarter-inch intervals.
'The longest it can burn after you set it down is four minutes,' he said. 'The fire needs oxygen to pull it through those speed bumps, and that comes from the smoker inhaling.'
Smokers will not notice the difference, and prices are expected to be the same. New York state required the new cigarettes starting in 2005. California and seven other states have already followed its lead.
'The tobacco companies have had this technology since the 1970s,' said Weninger. 'When you think about all the people who have died in that time, it's just huge.'