The cigarette that puts itself out

Ministers press for new EU law to force tobacco firms to produce self-extinguishing cigarettes, preventing thousands of fires each year
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Indy Politics

Cigarettes that put themselves out if they are left smouldering will be the only kind European smokers can buy if ministerial plans to cut the hundreds of fatalities caused by house fires become law.

The Government is spearheading an EU-wide law that will make it compulsory for all cigarettes to be designed to go out if nobody is smoking them.

In Britain, around 5,000 fires a year are caused accidentally by smokers - often when they fall asleep in bed with a cigarette in their hands. In 2004, 114 people died from smoking-related fires and 1,260 people received burns or other injuries.

Following lobbying from fire officers, ministers now believe that all cigarettes should be designed to be self-extinguishing. They are leading moves for the new standards to be made law in the EU General Product Safety Directive, which is being drawn up in Brussels.

The standards to bring in Reduced-Ignition Propensity (or RIP) cigarettes in all EU countries including Britain is expected to cut the number of deaths from smoking by at least a third.

In Canada and New York, all cigarettes must be produced to this standard, but in the UK, it is being opposed by most tobacco manufacturers. They question evidence that the cigarettes would reduce fires and believe that cigarettes produced with paper made with special self-extinguishing bands could change the smoking experience.

Deborah Arnott of the anti-smoking lobby group Ash said: "We are really pleased that this is now on the table. The technology has been around for over 20 years but the tobacco industry has been trying to hold this up for far too long.

"Over the years, thousands of people have died because this technology has not been put in place. We have seen quite severe disability and people losing their homes because of fires caused by cigarettes. The burns you can get are really quite horrific."

Earlier this year, a fire caused by smoking left a child aged under 18 months with burns to almost half his body. Two of his toes had to be amputated. His house was gutted by the fire, leaving his family homeless.

In Canada, where cigarettes are by law required to put themselves out if nobody is drawing on them, the number of fires caused by cigarettes has been reduced by two-thirds. Britain's Department for Communities and Local Government believes the change will help it to meet targets to cut the number of deaths in house fires by a fifth by 2010.

Angela Smith, the Communities minister spearheading the drive, said: "We are the ones that are pressing for European standards. The fire service and fire brigades' unions are all lined up with us. We are doing it for fire safety."

David Taylor, Labour MP for North-west Leicestershire and chairman of Parliament's all-party group on smoking and health, said that it was often non-smokers, including children, who were killed or hurt by fires caused by smokers.

He said. "Three and a half thousand domestic fires are caused each year by this. It is people going to sleep while smoking in bed or watching the television who cause these fires."

The tobacco firm Philip Morris produced a fire-safe cigarette four years ago, but a spokesman for the Tobacco Manufacturers' Association said most cigarette producers opposed the change and wanted to see more evidence that the new cigarettes would save lives.

The spokesman said: "We are worried these cigarettes could produce complacency among smokers. There's no such thing as a fire-safe cigarette."