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Brussels, 29 November 2007

Consumers: Member States endorse Commission plans to target cigarette fire risks

EU Member states have today endorsed European Commission plans to draw up proposals for a standard to combat the leading cause of home fire fatalities each year. The new standard will also target forest fires. It will require tobacco companies to sell only cigarettes which have a safety requirement in their design so they go out more quickly if left unattended. The decision by Member States in the General Product Safety Committee will start the process of bringing the European Union in line with many other leading industrial economies which are in the process of making the same requirements obligatory for tobacco companies. Since New York introduced this requirement for the first time in the US in 2004, 22 US states have signed similar legislation to come into force at latest by 2010, and 11 more have filed legislation. In Canada, legislation setting out safety requirements for cigarettes has been in force since October 2005, and Australia is preparing to introduce very similar laws The European Commission will take a formal decision on the mandate for a standard in Spring 2008.

EU Consumer Affairs Commissioner Kuneva said, "Clearly it is better not to smoke at all. It is bad for your health and bad for the health of the people around you. But if people choose to smoke then requiring tobacco companies to make this small technical change is another step in the right direction towards reducing some of the terrible damage that can be caused, both to the environment, and for some of the most vulnerable consumers in their own homes."

The current situation - EU and US figures

US research shows that cigarettes are the leading cause of home fire fatalities every year. Cigarette fires have been the top cause of U.S. fire fatalities for decades, killing tens of thousands of people in the past 30 years, according to the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), a research group that provides data for state and federal fire codes. Deaths have declined with falling smoking rates, but cigarette fires still kill 700 to 900 people a year (NFPA). The figures for the European Union tell a similar story. Data from14 Member States (with Iceland and Norway), from 2005 to 2007, shows that cigarette related fires caused some 11,000 fires every year, with 520 deaths and 1,600 injuries. Senior citizens suffer disproportionately. NFPA research estimated they die in cigarette fires at almost four times the rate of other Americans. Nationwide, nearly one in 10 fatal building fires begin with a cigarette and end with the death of a senior citizen.

Forest Fires – causes

The data available on fire causes varies, in terms of format and detail between Member States.

The breakdown for the 5 EU Mediterranean countries accounting for about 96% of the total burned area in EU are as follows:

Arson / Deliberate
Accident / Negligence

An EU wide analysis on this matter of fire causes is foreseen by the Joint Research Centre in the near future.

The JRC "Forest Fires in Europe Study" 2006 shows for example that in Italy in 2006, 60% of fires were due to arson, 15% of forest fires were unintentional and that cigarettes and matches abandoned in sensitive areas constitute 31.7% of unintentional fires. In Spain in the period 1998-2004, the fires classified as being caused by smokers were estimated as 7.8% of the fires caused by negligence, which in turn were 18.8% of the total fires. In Portugal in the second semester 2005, cigarettes were estimated to cause 18% of fires caused by negligence, which in turn were 16.3% out total fires.

Average data for 2006 for the 5 most affected southern countries (Portugal, Spain, France, Italy and Greece) indicates that forest fires burned a total area of 284,444 hectares.

Forest fires in Europe in July were some of the worst on record. Provisional figures from the European Commission forest fire information system showed already that the second half of July saw a sharp increase in fires and burnt areas in Bulgaria, Croatia, Greece and Italy. Satellite images show 2,229 square kilometers of burned land in those countries alone.

The standard

The most common "fire-safer" technology, used by cigarette manufacturers, is to wrap cigarettes with 2 or 3 thin bands of thickened paper that act to slow down a burning cigarette. If a cigarette is left unattended, the burning tobacco will soon hit one of these bands of paper and self-extinguish. Fire-safer cigarettes meet an established cigarette fire safety performance standard (based on ASTM E2187, Standard Test Method for Measuring the Ignition Strength of Cigarettes).

Any cigarette is a weak heat source and will tend to take time to start a fire. A "fire-safer" cigarette cuts off the burning time before most cigarettes are able to ignite things like furniture or bedding material. Put simply, that reduced propensity to ignite something else saves lives.

What next?
Following the decision by Member States, the Commission will bring forward a proposal for a decision to mandate CEN (European Committee for Standardisation) to prepare an EU wide standard in Spring 2008. The process of setting a standard can take 2-3 years.

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