AUSTIN -- Careless smokers will have a new safeguard against accidentally starting a house fire, thanks to new fire-safe cigarettes going on the Texas market in the coming months.
The product of 2007 legislation, cigarettes sold in Texas beginning on Jan. 1, 2009 will include bands of less porous paper that should result in a slower-burning cigarette that goes out by itself if left unattended.
State Rep. Phil King, the Weatherford Republican who authored the fire-safe cigarette bill, is hoping for fewer accidental house fires. He believes the legislation will save lives.
"My local fire marshal contacted me about the fire-safe cigarette idea before last session and told me about how many lives it had saved in other states," King said in a prepared statement. "I started doing a little research on it and quickly realized that there were no added costs and it was easy to implement. I began wondering why we didn't already have this law in place."
But Audrey Silk, a spokeswoman for a New York-based smokers' rights group, said that when smokers cause accidental house fires, it often turns out they're also drunk. And she said no amount of fire-safe cigarettes will prevent people from doing dumb things when they've been drinking.
"It gives you a false sense of security," said Silk, founder of the group New York City Citizens Lobbying Against Smoker Harassment. "People are under the assumption that if they leave their cigarette by itself, that they shouldn't worry about it. But as far as I can tell, cigarettes still cause fires."
The new law, House Bill 2935, requires that stores stock the new cigarettes beginning in January. However, the state won't begin enforcing the legislation until Jan. 1, 2010, so retailers have time to sell off their existing inventories.
The state fire marshal's office, which operates from the Texas Department of Insurance, will have responsibility for inspections and enforcement.
Cigarettes were responsible for approximately 500 residential house fires and 10 house-fire deaths in Texas in 2006, the latest year that figures were available, according to the Texas Department of Insurance. Wildfires caused by smokers also burned almost 50,000 acres of land that year, according to the Insurance Council of Texas, an industry trade group.
The new cigarettes typically self-extinguish because they're wrapped in two or three bands of less porous paper. The bands act as "speed bumps" that slow down burning, according to the Texas Department of Insurance.
But Silk, of the smokers' rights group, said that burning pieces of paper also sometimes fall away from the new cigarettes. She said that while she was smoking one, she almost lit up Bingo, her toy fox terrier. She said the dog was sitting on her lap at the time.
"I started smelling hair burning - a big chunk fell on her head," said Silk. "It almost hit her eye!"
Silk also warned that the new cigarettes taste horrible.
"It changes the taste, and people who smoke them said they never coughed before in their life, and now they've started coughing," she said.
A spokesman for Altria, the parent company of cigarette manufacturer Philip Morris USA, said the company would prefer a single federal standard, instead of different state standards for fire-safe cigarettes.
At least 20 other states now have similar laws, he said.