More states step in as product-safety czars

N.Y.'s call for self-extinguishing cigarettes shows states' power to bring national change.

When New York's lawmakers recently mandated that cigarettes sold in the state after 2003 must be fire-safe, they knew the move could have implications far beyond Albany. Since tobacco companies are unlikely to make separate cigarettes just for New York, the result of the state's tougher standards could well be a new product nationwide.

"We recognized this will set a precedent emulated around the country," says state Assemblyman Howard Mills (R).

New York's tactic is becoming more common. Across the US, states and even cities are using their power to regulate consumer products - from guns to cars to tobacco - with the aim of changing the industries at large. On matters that are stalemated in Congress, state legislators are stepping in, and increasingly, trying to force changes for human rights, environmental, or public-policy reasons.

"They may be trying to do what is right, and in doing so they may be setting national standards," says Mike Weber, a partner in the law firm Feldman Gale & Weber in Miami.

Some of these new rules upset the business community, which has to make the products. They argue that state lawmakers should be spending more time balancing budgets and creating economic growth.

"If you look at econometrics, things should be based on what people want and not on what a politician wants," says Jo-Anne Prokopowicz, spokeswoman for the National Association of Manufacturers in Washington.

Fifty conflicting standards?

Certainly, the companies involved would prefer that Congress act rather than have to deal with 50 potentially conflicting standards set by the states.

To avoid that scenario, Philip Morris USA, the nation's largest tobacco company, is offering to work with Congress to set new federal guidelines. The company is currently testing a new ultra-thin cigarette paper that has rings that are applied like little speed bumps. If a smoker does not take a pull on the cigarette, it will automatically go out. Philip Morris is offering to share its technology with other companies.

"At this point, we would like to see some kind of federal standard - we're willing to work with legislators on that standard," says Kati Otto, a spokeswoman for Philip Morris.

In the past, the tobacco companies might have thought about taking the states to court for passing such legislation. However, Mr. Weber points out that because the companies have been successful in preventing any legislation from passing Congress, they "left the door open for regulations on a state-by-state basis."

Probably the leader in these changes is California, which is also considering legislation that would require self-extinguishing cigarettes.

Take automobiles. To cut down on pollution, California has a lot of restrictions that aren't seen elsewhere. As a result, an individual buying a new car in any other state may find a statement that the car is not for sale in the state of California.

In the mid-1990s, the Golden State adopted a rule requiring 2 percent of all motor vehicles sold in the state by 1998 to have zero emissions. It hoped the industry, spurred by the law, would develop new battery technology.

"What happened is the motor- vehicle manufacturers said this can't be done - there is not sufficient battery capabilities," says Larry Morandi, director of the environmental program at the National Conference of State Legislatures in Colorado.

Now California is requiring that 10 percent of all vehicles sold produce zero emissions by 2003. New York and Massachusetts have followed California. "The states are trying to drive the market," says Mr. Morandi.

Purchasing power

That's the aim of lawmakers in New York City as well, who are trying to effect social change through their purchases - forcing companies to supply them with products that are not yet generally available.

Last week, Peter Vallone, the speaker of the City Council, and several other Democratic council members introduced legislation to curb the purchase of hardwoods from globally threatened forests. Instead, for city projects, the city will try to buy wood certified by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), a Mexico-based environmental organization, and wood alternatives.

"We have real opportunity to set a national example, support the growing market for eco-certified wood, and to get other cities to follow suit," says Mr. Vallone.

If the legislation passes, it could have a widespread impact, officials say.

"New York City is one of the largest municipal wood users in the country, and much of this wood comes from the most rare and important ancient forests in the world," says Carl Pope, executive director of the Sierra Club.

Derek Jumper, a spokesperson for the American Forest and Paper Association, says the forest products industry is resigned to the changes. The industry has its own certification program, which is not endorsed by the green groups.

"Our members agree the market is slowly and most probably shifting towards certified wood products," says Mr. Jumper. However, he says, there is not enough acreage under FSC certification to fill demand.

That doesn't faze the sponsors of the legislation.

"We can help drive the market" says A. Gifford Miller, a council member.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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