The tobacco industry could develop a "firesafe" cigarette, but it won't. Now, in a rare defeat for the tobacco lobby in Congress, the industry will be forced to come up with a cigarette that is less likely to start a fire when it is dropped.
The impetus for the new cigarette came from a member of Congress who has refused to take campaign money from the tobacco lobby and is finally in a position to call in favors from those who do.
Rep. Joe Moakley (D-Mass.) has tried since 1979 to get Congress to mandate firesafe cigarettes. In 1979, a fire caused by a cigarette killed an entire family in Moakley's district. He figured those deaths, and the 1,500 deaths and 7,000 injuries caused every year by cigarette fires in the United States, could be avoided, along with the $400 million in annual property damage.
The notion of a firesafe cigarette was debated for several years, but Moakley didn't have the clout in Congress to get past the interests of the Tobacco Institute, a lobbying organization that handed out $194,557 in campaign contributions in the last congressional election cycle.
Finally in 1984, Congress agreed to at least study the idea of a cigarette that is less likely to ignite bedding, furniture and rugs. It is possible through changes in paper, packing and dimensions to make cigarettes safer. A technical study group created by Congress took three years to conclude that such a cigarette was technically possible. But the committee could not decide whether the idea was commercially feasible.
The Tobacco Institute, which represents most major American tobacco producers, still had an out. As long as the government had not declared the product commercially feasible, the industry had a powerful excuse not to tinker with its product.
But the Tobacco Institute hadn't counted on Moakley, who has picked up some power since he began his crusade in 1979. Moakley is now chairman of the House Rules Committee, and last month he used that position to call in favors from fellow members of Congress who need his cooperation on other matters.
Moakley pulled some strings and rushed through Congress a new law that will make firesafe cigarettes necessary without making them mandatory. Moakley's bill orders the Consumer Product Safety Commission to set federal testing procedures for firesafe cigarettes.
Tobacco companies wouldn't be required to put their cigarettes to the test. But sources in the industry and in Congress told our associate Tim Warner that the effect will be the same as a mandatory standard. Once Congress sets up a testing mechanism, even a voluntary one, tobacco companies are at greater risk in lawsuits resulting from fires if it can be proved that they didn't do everything possible to make the cigarette safer. And Congress will be more inclined in the future to require firesafe cigarettes once the test is available.
Moakley's success in swaying members of Congress indicates the tobacco industry may be losing some of its bought-and-paid-for clout on Capitol Hill. As Moakley sees it, the industry realized "the time had come that they were no longer that sacred industry that nobody was going to bother."