A federal task force has concluded that it is technically feasible, and may be commercially possible, for the tobacco industry to produce a cigarette that is less likely to cause the mattress and furniture fires that kill about 1,600 Americans a year.
A draft report by a technical study group, released yesterday, said that while more research is needed, two years of study indicate that a cigarette less prone to ignite a home fire can be manufactured for relatively little increase in the manufacturing costs of cigarettes. It did not address the question of whether smokers are likely to accept the cigarettes.
"We found that thinner cigarettes with less tobacco and less porous paper, which cuts air circulation in the cigarette, can significantly reduce the chance of igniting soft furnishings," said Richard Gann, a researcher at the National Bureau of Standards.
Researchers at the bureau's Center for Fire Research in Gaithersburg have tested thousands of cigarettes, including most commercial brands and 41 types of experimental cigarettes furnished by tobacco companies. Filter-tipped cigarettes were found less likely to cause fires, but the type of tobacco made little difference, the researchers said.
A Tobacco Institute spokeswoman said yesterday that the industry, which participated in the study, has been anxiously awaiting the task force report, but she said she was unaware of its findings and declined to comment.
In 1984, when the issue was being debated in Congress, another Tobacco Institute spokesman predicted that "once the technological breakthroughs are made," cigarette makers would be certain to modify their products quickly to make them less likely to cause fires.
Cigarette-ignited fires are "by far" the leading cause of fire deaths in the United States, according to the report of the Interagency Committee on Cigarette and Little Cigar Fire Safety. In 1984, when Congress passed the Cigarette Safety Act and mandated the study, cigarettes caused 67,000 fires resulting in $390 million in property damage, 7,000 serious injuries and 1,570 deaths, the report said.
According to the National Bureau of Standards, its researchers found that "the best of the experimental cigarettes tested were less likely to ignite the furniture than commercial cigarettes." Five patented cigarettes that contained fire retardants or other features not found in commercial cigarettes also were found "less likely to cause ignition," the bureau said.
Gann said "another important finding," and one that rejects previous beliefs, is that a cigarette with a low likelihood of causing a fire is "not necessarily" one that produces a higher amount of tar, nicotine and carbon monoxide.
The government researchers did not investigate the toxicity of the cigarette smoke and said in their findings that manufacturers will have to make "some advances in cigarette design and manufacturing technology" to produce the new cigarettes.
The bureau's economic staff studied the implications of modifying cigarettes to reduce the fire risks; some of those findings may indicate more hard economic times for the nation's tobacco-producing regions. Reducing the circumference of most cigarettes would lower overall tobacco production costs by 3 percent because less tobacco would be needed, the researchers said.
"In turn, annual revenues from tobacco farming would drop by about 15 percent, and a 4 percent reduction in tobacco industry jobs would be likely," the bureau said.
While the studies conducted by the bureau staff were adequate for research purposes, because of the wide variety of upholstery fabrics and paddings used in the tests, the bureau said the results were not "suitable as a standard measure of cigarette performance" and that more research would be needed.