Josh Goodman is a former staff writer for GOVERNING..E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
As a member of Congress 25 years ago, Jim Shannon fought to put a self-extinguishing mechanism in all cigarettes that would make them less likely to ignite house fires. Big Tobacco killed the legislation every time. Today, as the head of the National Fire Protection Association, Shannon has persuaded every state but Wyoming to approve laws mandating fire-safe cigarettes. The turnaround is a testament to the shifting public relations strategy of the tobacco lobby, as well as the industry's waning influence.
Fire-safe cigarettes go out if a smoker stops puffing. They have extra rings of paper, which prevent them from burning on their own if a smoker falls asleep or drops a lit cigarette. Tobacco companies always opposed fire-safe cigarettes on the grounds that they cost more to produce.
The momentum began to shift in 2004, when New York became the first state to mandate fire-safe cigarettes. To Shannon, this was a revelation. "Maybe what we need to do is forget about beating our heads against the wall in Congress," he remembers thinking.
The NFPA isn't the sort of group that you'd expect to beat Big Tobacco. It spends most of its time writing safety codes for things like sprinklers and smoke alarms. But the NFPA recruited firefighters and fire marshals to help make its case in more statehouses. Forty-four states approved the laws just in the past three years.
Why the near-universal acceptance? The tobacco companies stopped putting up a fight. After years of bad press, they weren't inclined to end up on the wrong side of a safety debate. Quite quickly, their goal switched from fighting the laws to ensuring that no state diverged from the model New York created. In 2007, R.J. Reynolds promised to transition to fire-safe cigarettes, even in states without the laws. "If the standards were reasonable and consistent," says Frank Lester, an R.J. Reynolds spokesman, "we could live with them."
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