Not Safe, But Fired

Take some paper and various other materials, bundled into one neat package. Light it on fire. Use it for a bit and then, when you’re done, throw it away, still lit. There’s a good chance that the outcome is going to be pretty awful — which should be self-evident. But it happens many times a year. The culprit: improperly extinguished cigarettes. According to the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), in 2010, “there were an estimated 90,800 smoking material fires [in the United States] resulting in $663 million in direct property damage” and, directly or indirectly, more than 600 deaths. Those numbers, while high, were actually an improvement over a few decades earlier, and the NFPA attributes a large part of those improvements to something called a “fire-safe cigarette.”

The name is a misnomer — a “fire-safe cigarette” (or FSC) is still a flaming stick of flammable stuff which can do massive amounts of damage — but the technology is still an improvement. (Well, at least in the fire prevention realm; smoking will still kill you.) These types of cigarettes were outfitted with “speed bumps” — special areas with added paper, treated to prevent the cigarette from continuing its slow burn toward the filter. The illustration below, via the NFPA, may help:


Starting in 2003, many U.S. states began requiring that any cigarettes sold within their borders be FSCs, and as of this writing, only fire-safe cigarettes can be sold at retail in more than 40 states. But before the law required FSCs, some manufacturers decided to use a less-likely-to-burn-your-house-down cig as a marketing angle. In 2000, for example, Philip Morris introduced the Merit, which roughly followed the design described above, and promoted it as a cigarette which was less likely to cause fire damage to you or your property.

Except: it probably didn’t work.

Consumers began reporting that the Merits were causing their users to suffer unexpected burns due to something called “coal dropoff.” A Philip Morris scientist named Michael Lee Watkins was one of the people assigned to investigate these claims. In a subsequent court case (pdf), Watkins defined “coal dropoff” as “when the coal or the burning end of the cigarette dislodges from the unburned tobacco and falls off.” Unlike ash, which falls harmlessly to the ground, “the coal is actively burning and hot” per Watkins — “you literally have burning material that falls off.”

This, to say the least, was a problem for Philip Morris. Already the purveyor of a (rightfully) embattled product, they now had a product which they had advertised as safer which, per one of their scientists, may have been quite the opposite. Instead of issuing a recall or an advisory, though, they kept quiet — and forced Watkins into silence.

First, toward the end of 2001, Philip Morris transferred Watkins off the FSC research. Watkins kept a keen eye on that work, though. On January 23, 2002, again per his above-linked testimony, Watkins wrote a memo to two of his superiors, sharing his concerns about how the new team was continuing with the coal dropoff tests and with the integrity of the data his successors had developed. Instead of “fire safe,” in Watkins view, the Merits were fire starters, and Philip Morris wasn’t doing a good job in further investigating the problems.

On January 30, 2002, Watkins was fired. As he stated in his testimony, the official reason was because he “was insubordinate and that I had not adhered to the chain of command and that my values were not consistent with those of the company.” Neither he nor the government were buying that explanation. In 2004, as the Wall Street Journal reported, the U.S. Department of Justice filed a lawsuit against Philip Morris alleging that it intentionally avoided disclosing the bad news (and therefore had engaged in false advertising), even going to extremes such as terminating a voice of dissent.

This case was combined with many other lawsuits between the U.S government and tobacco companies at the time, and was settled along with them. Merits are still available for sale, but the coal dropping problem has almost certainly been fixed.

AnchorBonus Fact: Usually, cigarette companies disavow knowledge of any link between health hazards and smoking, but in the Czech Republic in 2001, Philip Morris took a different approach. The government was pushing for regulation, arguing that the public health costs of smoking were too large to ignore. In response, the tobacco giant commissioned a study to show how the public saved money by the actions of smokers — because smokers paid extra taxes and died before they retired. The report, per Wikipedia, concluded that “based on up-to-date reliable data and consideration of all relevant contributing factors, the effect of smoking on the public finance balance in the Czech Republic in 1999 was positive, estimated at +5,815 mil. CZK.” The public reaction to the stance that cigarettes will kill you before you become a drain on society was very loud, and Philip Morris ended up disavowing the report.

From the Archives: The Faults in Their Stars: New York City’s Grand Central Station has a unique warning about the effects of cigarette smoke on its ceiling (and also, the a reminder about the dangers of parking rocket ships indoors).

Take the Quiz!: A word ladder: “What do you do if you catch on fire?” If you don’t know how a word ladder works, the rules a simple: each answer has to have exactly one letter different than the answer before it. For example, if the first clue was “You wear it on your head,” that’d be “hat.” If the second clue was “a common domesticated animal,” the answer would be “cat,” which has one letter different than “hat.” (“Dog,” by extension, wouldn’t work.)

Related: “Tobacco: A Cultural History of How an Exotic Plant Seduced Civilization” by Iain Gately. 39 reviews averaging 4.4 stars.