LITTLE ROCK — So-called ‘fire-safe’ cigarettes are turning up on store shelves across Arkansas, and smokers are complaining that while the safety of the cigarettes may have been improved, the quality has declined.
“They don’t like the taste of it, it leaves a (bad) taste,” said Lamont Hart, an employee of Tobacco Outlet in Little Rock. “Some people are even saying it’s harsher on their throats because it’s so heavy.”
Each cigarette contains two bands of less porous paper, nicknamed “speed bumps,” designed to cause the cigarette to self-extinguish if left unattended, reducing the risk of starting a fire. Critics say the cigarettes don’t have to be left unattended to go out.
“You have to keep lighting and relighting and relighting and relighting and relighting,” said Hart, who smokes as well as sells cigarettes. “You could have made a pull on it and then turned your head and look back again and you have to relight it all over again because it just went out that quick.”
Hart demonstrated the disdain for the cigarettes by asking a customer for an opinion. The customer responded with an expletive.
The Arkansas Cigarette Fire Safety Standard Act of 2009, which takes effect next Jan. 1, will require all cigarettes sold in the state to be fire-safe, though retailers will be allowed to sell any remaining stocks of non-fire-safe cigarettes. Manufacturers, wholesalers and retailers who violate the law can be fined $100 per pack sold.
Retailers say wholesalers are already shipping fire-safe cigarettes in anticipation of the law taking effect, to the annoyance of customers.
Jim Pepper, who manages a Discount Tobacco store in Fort Smith, said Oklahomans don’t seem to like the new cigarettes any more than Arkansans do. After Oklahoma passed a cigarette safety law in 2008, Pepper saw a surge in customers from the Sooner state.
“They would buy like 10 cartons at a time,” he said, though he noted the rush has stopped now that fire-safe cigarettes dominate Discount Tobacco’s shelves as well.
Pepper estimated that business at the store has dropped 10 percent to 15 percent, though part of the decline is probably a reaction to state and federal tax hikes that took effect this year.
Arkansas increased its cigarette tax by 56 cents a pack to fund a statewide trauma system and other health programs, and the federal government increased its cigarette tax by 62 cents to fund an expansion of the State Children’s Health Insurance Program, or SCHIP.
The state increase took effect in March and the federal increase took effect in April.
“You add that (the safety law) on top of the tax increase in April, and it’s really kind of negative” for business, Pepper said. “I don’t really see how it’s fair.”
Cigarette manufacturers and wholesalers didn’t oppose the law when it was being debated in the Legislature earlier this year. In fact, the legislation’s sponsor, Rep. Steve Harrelson, D-Texarkana, said it was a wholesaler who asked him to file the bill. The wholesaler serves both Arkansas and Texas.
“His interest was the fact that he was having to purchase two kinds of cigarettes, fire-safe for Texas and the regular kind for his Arkansas retailers,” Harrelson said.
All of the states surrounding Arkansas have passed laws requiring the special cigarettes, though not all laws have taken effect.
“Every state is moving toward this, and eventually all 51 jurisdictions in the United States will have these,” Harrelson said.
Manufacturers support state laws requiring fire-safe cigarettes for the same reason wholesalers support them: consistency.
“We have been advocating for a national standard for some time,” said David Sutton, a spokesman for Altria, the company that owns Phillip Morris USA. “There is no standard, so what we’ve done is work with states to work towards a uniform standard across all the states.”
Altria also supports fire safety, Sutton said. He noted that smokers should be careful even with fire-safe cigarettes because, like anything that burns, they can start fires if handled carelessly.
Sutton said that whenever a state makes the switch to fire-safe cigarettes, the company receives complaints about the cigarettes being hard to smoke. The complaints tend to disappear over time as smokers get used to the new product, he said.
There is no reason the taste of the cigarettes should be any different, according to Sutton.
“I would say to consumers, remember, this is the same quality tobacco, the same blend you’ve been smoking, and the change here is a different type of paper which has been shown to reduce the likelihood of igniting things that cause fires. Otherwise, it’s exactly the same cigarette,” he said.
According to the Web site of the U.S. Fire Administration, Arkansas had the sixth highest rate of civil fire deaths in the country in 2004, the most recent year for which rankings are available.
Marc Lowery, president of the Arkansas Fire Marshals Association, said anything the state can do to reduce the rate is worthwhile, including changing the type of cigarettes sold.
“I think if it saves one life, they’re worth doing,” he said.
And what about the complaints from smokers who say the cigarettes are hard to smoke?
“My mother-in-law has told me that as well,” Lowery said. “My hope is they can overlook this for safer homes.”
Harrelson said the legislation was not intended to get people to quit smoking, but if it has that effect, that is not necessarily a bad thing.
“Anything that gives people reason to quit is fine with me,” he said.
Hart and Pepper said their customers are finding ways to get around the problem without quitting, such as switching to cigars or rolling their own cigarettes. Pepper said he has heard talk of people buying cigarettes in other countries and trying to get them through customs.
“They’re going to smoke, regardless,” Hart said.
© Copyright: 13 September 2009