Philip Morris Finds a Fire It Can Put Out

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You've got to hand it to the cigarette makers. Even in the competitive field of corporate double-talk, they've cornered the market on denial and legal foot-dragging. Just a year or so after finally admitting that cigarettes do in fact cause serious health problems, and only 10 years after an official complaint was filed on the subject, one major tobacco company looks as if it may address another cigarette-related public relations disaster: The ease with which sleeping or distracted smokers can cause fires. The likelihood of these accidents is exacerbated, critics attest, by the fast-burning paper currently used in cigarettes. According to the New York Times, Philip Morris plans to announce Tuesday that it has developed a "safer" cigarette paper, which the company claims burns more slowly and generates less heat. The technology — which has reportedly been available since the 1980s — will be test-marketed in the company's Merit brand, and if it's successful (presumably if fewer deadly fires are inadvertently started and the paper doesn't cut down on the smooth taste of toxic chemicals), it will be introduced in more popular brands, such as Marlboro.

This change, if it sticks, has been a long time coming. In a not-so-subtle nudge to tobacco companies, the Consumer Product Safety Commission has since 1987 issued dire statistics conclusively linking cigarettes to 25 percent of America's fatal house fires: In 1997, those blazes claimed roughly 900 victims, including 140 children. Of course, while these grisly numbers may have finally prompted a response from Philip Morris, they're small potatoes when compared with the annual death toll of people who stick cigarettes in their mouths, not just in their carpets. Changing that habit is going to take a much bigger step — one that the government and, certainly, the tobacco companies have shown no inclination to do.