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Lessons Learned from a Successful Public Health Law Campaign: Fire Safe Cigarette Laws

posted on Thu, Oct 10 2013 3:01 pm by Kathleen Hoke

Public health policy often takes a long time to produce measurable results. Implementing laws to prevent kids from using tobacco products will result in reduced cancer, respiratory ailments and cardiovascular disease in the population. Securing zoning changes to improve access to bike and walking paths may reduce obesity in the population. But we cannot expect immediate results from these public health laws; it takes time to find measurable impact. And because of differences across the country, we rarely see uniform public health laws adopted with equal vigor in every state. One exception to this is fire-safe cigarette legislation. Not only has every state in the country passed a law requiring that cigarettes meet certain fire safety standards, recent fire death data provide evidence that the laws are having the desired impact on morbidity and mortality.

The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) recently released the report, The Smoking Material Fire Problem, which found that “[r]educed ignition strength ("fire safe") cigarettes appear to be the principal reason for a 30 percent decline in smoking-material fire deaths from 2003-2011.” New York State passed the first fire-safe cigarette law in 2003 and in less than a decade similar provisions had been passed in every state and the District of Columbia. Smoking-material fire deaths have dropped significantly since 1980—a 73 percent reduction in deaths across three decades. Some of that decline is attributable to laws passed decades ago imposing fire safety standards for mattresses, carpets and children’s sleepwear  in addition to the decline in smoking in the population in the preceding decades. But the quick and comprehensive success of fire-safe cigarette legislation contributed significantly to the decline in fire deaths in the last decade.

What lessons can be learned from this success? How did this public health measure become law in all 50 states and D.C. in such a short period of time? First, reliable data on cigarette-caused fires made clear that traditional cigarettes were contributing not only to increased rates of cancer, respiratory illness and cardiovascular disease, but they were contributing to fire deaths, injuries and property damage as well. Reliable data that is readily accessible and easily presented to policymakers is essential to the development of a sound and effective public health campaign. 

Second, much credit must be given to the Coalition for Fire-Safe Cigarettes. Fire protection professionals were keenly aware of the devastating impact of cigarette-caused fires and they, too, were at risk when responding to such fires. But they wisely created a coalition of interested organizations to amplify the impact of the campaign. Headed by the NFPA, the Coalition is comprised of many professional fire protection organizations, such as the National Association of State Fire Marshals and the National Association of Hispanic Firefighters; organizations focused on issues impacting the elderly (because cigarette-caused fires disproportionately take the lives of older folks), such as AARP and the Center for Social Gerontology; injury prevention advocates, such as the Home Safety Council and the National Safety Council; burn victims’ organizations, such as the Burn Foundation; and business entities, such as the Property and Casual Insurers Association of America and the Business and Institutional Furniture Manufacturers’ Association. With the expertise and advocacy power of such a diverse group, the Coalition was able to demonstrate broad support for the legislation. Equally important, the Coalition offered technical support to advocates across the country and provided model legislation that could be adapted for use in any state. Ensuring consistency in the technical requirements of the laws reduced significantly the arguments cigarette manufacturers could make against a proposed fire-safe cigarette law. 

Finally, this public health measure can be cast as one component of a comprehensive scheme to reduce fire death and injury. While fire-safe cigarette laws impose burdens on cigarette manufacturers, the burden of improving fire safety is shared across industries. Building code requirements to reduce fire risk are imposed on construction companies and product safety standards are imposed on manufacturers of mattresses, carpets and children’s sleepwear. In addition to the legal tools, public education campaigns spread the word about fire hazards and fire department home visits assure the distribution and proper installation of smoke alarms. When articulated as a component of a larger scheme that imposes obligations on other industries and that addresses the public health problem through multiple approaches, the burden on the cigarette manufacturers appears equitable.

Having worked in support of Maryland’s fire-safe cigarette law many years ago, I can personally attest to the powerful impact of the data, the Coalition and the overall scheme of fire prevention in securing passage of this effective public health measure. We are fortunate to have the fire-safe cigarette campaign as a model as we work on reducing other public health problems through law and policy change.

This blog was developed by Kathleen Hoke, J.D., director of the Network for Public Health Law – Eastern Region at the University of Maryland Carey School of Law.

The Network for Public Health Law provides information and technical assistance on issues related to public health. The legal information and assistance provided in this document does not constitute legal advice or legal representation. For legal advice, readers should consult a lawyer in their state. The views expressed in this post do not represent those of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

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