Fighting for Safety

By Annys Shin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, January 26, 2008

Since its inception, the Consumer Product Safety Commission has grappled with how to reduce the number of deaths and injuries from accidental fires. It chose to tackle the problem by crafting a regulation to make upholstered furniture less flammable. A record 14 years later, a rule is heaving into sight, with a final vote possible later this year.

If the regulation is approved, it will end a protracted battle among a far-flung set of interests. The story behind the rule and why it took so long offers a glimpse at the constraints under which the CPSC operates. Hemmed in by jurisdictional dictates and sometimes hampered by a lack of clear scientific evidence, the commission became caught in the middle of warring industries. It became increasingly preoccupied with finding a compromise, and, at times, not able or inclined to impose its will on the voices shouting to be heard.

Those voices included fire marshals recruited to fight fire-safe cigarettes, a Berkeley biochemist who suspected her couch poisoned her cat, a group of Mississippi furniture makers, and an energetic ex-tobacco lobbyist who relished hardball tactics.

"I never felt any of the companies I worked with in this had the interest of the consumers at heart," former CPSC chairman Ann Brown said. "It was a hundred fingers pointing in a hundred directions."

Since work on the rule began in 1994, fires involving upholstered furniture killed more than 3,600 people, injured 6,500 and caused more than $1.5 billion in property damage, the CPSC said.

For years, there has been an obvious way to address accidental fires: requiring tobacco companies to make cigarettes, which are the leading cause of fatal fires, self-extinguishing. But tobacco was exempted from CPSC jurisdiction when the agency was created in 1972, and a 1994 attempt to give the agency authority over cigarettes failed.

Catching Fire

The alternative was to focus on the furniture that was catching fire. And the tobacco industry, which wanted to avoid further regulation of cigarettes, did its best to steer the CPSC in that direction.

The industry's agent was a former insider named Peter Sparber. Sparber, now in his early 60s, started out as a newspaper reporter in New Jersey and became a vice president of the Tobacco Institute, the industry's lobbying arm, in the 1980s. There, he built a national network of tobacco-friendly fire marshals to call on in the fight against fire-safe cigarettes. To win their loyalty, the industry gave out hundreds of thousands of dollars in grants to fire departments across the country, according to internal documents released under the 1998 multi-state tobacco settlement.

By the late 1980s, Sparber had set up his own firm and was a volunteer lobbyist for the National Association of State Fire Marshals. In 1994, the group petitioned the CPSC to require furniture manufacturers make upholstered furniture so it would resist ignition by a smoldering cigarette and small open flames.

Unknown to the CPSC at the time, Sparber was still on the tobacco industry payroll, working on a variety of issues. In a 1993 strategy memo on combating indoor smoking restrictions, he suggested the industry find "third parties" to portray restaurant workers as carriers of disease. "It may be hard to generate public concern over restaurant exposure to [second-hand smoke] when the public is more concerned about contracting rare, Central American strains of tuberculosis," he wrote.

Sparber, who remains the fire marshals association's pro bono lobbyist, did not respond to e-mails or messages left at his office. His colleague and Tobacco Institute alumna, Karen Suhl, answered questions on behalf of the association but declined to be quoted.

On the upholstered furniture front, Sparber was well matched by the furniture industry, which had a powerful ally in then-Rep. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.). Furniture makers opposed the proposed regulation because of its cost and concerns about the health effects of fire-retardant chemicals on its workers. In 1999, Wicker was able to delay the rule by attaching a rider to an appropriations bill that blocked further action until a study was done on the health risks of fire-retardant chemicals.

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