What America needs is a good "fire-safe" cigarette that burns out more quickly than the conventional smoking materials that in 1981 ignited 63,518 homes, caused $305 million in property damage, injured 3,819 people and killed 2,144 others.

That, at least, is the opinion of the informal coalition of fire fighters, consumer leaders and lawmakers now pushing for government standards requiring that cigarettes and little cigars be made to extinguish faster when they go unpuffed.

"We want cigarettes to have a minimum capacity for igniting upholstered furniture and mattresses," said Rep. Joe Moakley (D-Mass.), who is sponsoring legislation to give the Consumer Product Safety Commission authority to write a cigarette safety standard. Hearings on the proposal are planned for March.

In addition, six state legislatures are expected to consider bills this year calling for safer-burning cigarettes. A bill already has been introduced in Virginia, and one will be filed in Maryland within the next several weeks.

The tobacco industry is opposing the effort to require fire-safety standards for cigarettes on the grounds that it does not know if such cigarettes can be produced. However, tests have shown that at least two brands already burn out much more quickly than the average cigarette.

The national coordinator of the cigarette fire-safety movement is Andrew McGuire, executive director of the Burn Council at San Francisco General Hospital. He estimates that about 400 people are working with him to gain public support for a burning standard for cigarettes. "Most of them are in the fire service or in burn centers around the country. They are people who see the problem [of cigarette fire injuries and deaths] all the time," McGuire said.

McGuire has been carrying his message around the country for more than two years, showing a film of burn victims injured in cigarette fires "that didn't have to happen" and urging listeners to tell their representatives to support the safe cigarette standard. Friday he addressed a national conference of fire safety officials meeting in Crystal City.

The concept of a fire-resistant cigarette so far has been endorsed by 40 major organizations, including the American Medical Association, the International Association of Fire Chiefs and the American Burn Association.

The tobacco industry, meanwhile, is hoping to block any legislation dealing with burning standards for cigarettes.

"In almost any case, we are leery of setting an inflexible standard," said Walker Merryman, vice president of the Tobacco Institute, a trade association composed of 11 companies representing nearly all the major cigarette manufacturers.

More than one-third of all residential fire deaths are caused by cigarettes, according to the United States Fire Administration. Most of those deaths -- and the pain, suffering and property losses accompanying them -- could have been prevented, the cigarette safety crusaders say, if the characteristics of cigarette construction were altered.

A conventional cigarette dropped onto a couch cushion or a mattress will now continue to burn 30 to 45 minutes before extinguishing, according to government tests. During that time, the heat from the cigarette can ignite the furniture.

But chances for an ignition to occur are significantly reduced if the cigarette burns out more quickly. One early proposal for a "fire-safe cigarette" standard would have required that cigarettes stop burning in five minutes or less, when unpuffed.

However, the latest bill, offered by Moakley, specifies only that the cigarette go out within a time period designated by the Consumer Product Safety Commission.

To produce a safer cigarette, companies would have to modify the way most cigarettes are made. Whether the companies can develop cigarettes that burn out as quickly as some fire-safety advocates would like is in dispute.

"A self-extinguishing cigarette? Even the scientists can't define that," said the Tobacco Institute's Merryman. "Is it one that goes out 90 seconds after being placed on a couch with cotton padding -- or is it three minutes or five minutes?"

Merryman also said that the technology doesn't exist to produce cigarettes that will extinguish as fast as some fire safety leaders want.

But some cigarettes now on the market do burn out within five or six minutes. Two brands found to extinguish in that period of time are More, made by R. J. Reynolds Tobacco Co., and Nat Sherman's specialty cigarettes made in New York City.

The United States Testing Co., an independent laboratory, reported that all of the samples of the Sherman's cigarettes tested extinguished within five minutes. Half of the More samples extinguished within six minutes; the other half, within 36 minutes, the lab reported. None of the Mores or the Sherman's ignited the chairs in which they were placed for the tests.

Officials at Sherman's say the slow burn of their products is possible because they never "use any flavorings, saltpeter or any additives." An advertisement in the Sherman's catalogue says that anyone who lights an ordinary cigarette will see that "it burns out quickly because there's a chemical in it to keep it burning" while Sherman's "burns slowly because there are no chemicals of any kind, just pure tobacco."

(A slow-burning cigarette will extinguish more quickly than a fast-burning one, thereby producing less heat and less chance of a fire.)

David Fishel, a spokesman for Reynolds, said More's design results in its slow burn and fast extinguishing characteristics. "It is a slender cigarette packed tighter than a cigarette with a larger diameter," he explained.

Citrates are added to the More paper to ensure an even burn, he said, "but nothing is added to the tobacco."

Some fire-safe cigarette supporters, such as Commissioner Stuart M. Statler of the Consumer Product Safety Commission, say that the tobacco companies "are not only not contributing to the solution -- they are actively contributing to the problem by adding elements to the tobacco and to the paper to cause cigarettes to burn longer."

Statler said nitrates are sometimes added directly to tobacco and sometimes to the soil in which tobacco is grown. "And nitrates tend to prolong burning," he said. Citrates are added to tobacco paper to make it burn steadily and continuously, he said.

"So while many of the companies will say they can't come up with a fire-safe cigarette," Statler said, "they could in fact diminish significantly the problem if they didn't add the nitrates and citrates."