The self-extinguishing cigarette is becoming more common, as states take steps to prevent fires started by smoldering, unattended tobacco products.
Earlier this month, California became the third state, after New York and Vermont, to require tobacco companies to use cigarette paper that meets fire-safety standards. Cigarettes made with such paper put themselves out if they are not used within about two minutes.
With implementation of California's law, a full 20 percent of smokers in the US will be using the so-called self-extinguishing cigarettes. Massachusetts and New Jersey are weighing similar legislation.
"Once California came aboard, it will happen nationally [as other states do likewise], no matter what the feds do," says Andrew McGuire, executive director of the Trauma Foundation at San Francisco General Hospital and a leader in efforts to enact similar laws elsewhere.
Advocates of such laws - including health groups, burn survivors and their families, and firefighting groups - say the altered cigarettes will save hundreds of lives each year. Early data indicate the approach is working in New York.
"This is an idea that has been kicking around for years, but it's an idea whose time has come," says James Shannon, president of the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), which helps set fire codes and standards.
About 26,000 home fires annually are cigarette-related, causing $300 million in damage, according to the NFPA. More than 700 people die each year from cigarette-caused fires.
"It's the leading cause of home-fire fatalities - representing 25 percent of all home fires," says Mr. Shannon. "If we can adopt this nationally, it would be a huge improvement."
Federal legislation, though, is not what advocates have in mind. They are urging a state-by-state approach, concerned that Congress will "dumb the standard down so [that] it's less of a burden on the industry," says Greg Connolly of the Harvard School of Public Health, which next month hosts a conference on the issue.
The industry itself seems divided on the issue. Philip Morris stayed on the sidelines during the California debate, but company spokesman Mike Neese says the firm supports legislation at the federal level. The company recently settled a burn lawsuit brought on behalf of a Texas girl.
RJ Reynolds Tobacco lobbied against the California legislation. "We continue to believe 'fire safe' cigarettes are not an effective means to address the needs of accidental fires attributed to the mishandling of cigarettes," says spokesman David Howard.
The company's position is that consumer education is the answer, says Mr. Howard. Though RJ Reynolds has no information on its website about the issue and does not run any public-service advertising about it, he says: "We certainly do encourage and want to tell our consumers ... [that] there is a responsibility for proper use and disposal."
The New York standard - which California followed - requires that cigarettes meet a "reduced ignition propensity," obtained by bands of paper that act as speed bumps and cause unattended cigarettes to stop burning.
Early data from New York's law - which was enacted in July 2004 - indicate that deaths from cigarette-related fires have been reduced 33 percent, according to Shannon.
Reliable numbers, though, require years of data. "Ideally, you want two to three years," says Mr. Connolly. "We should be seeing a 60 to 70 percent reduction."
There is some disagreement over how consumers feel about the change in cigarettes. RJ Reynolds has had calls from consumers who don't like the new cigarettes, Howard says. The company has seen sales drop in New York, but "that could be the result of any number of factors," he says.
The campaign for fire-safe cigarettes has been going on for decades. In 1929, US Rep. Edith Nourse Rogers (R) of Massachusetts instructed the National Bureau of Standards to produce a "self-snubbing" cigarette. In 1932, the bureau said it was successful but needed a manufacturer to take up the idea.
In 1974 Sen. Phil Hart (D) of Michigan, acting on behalf of the furniture industry, sponsored legislation, passed by the US Senate, to require a cigarette that self-extinguished in 10 minutes. The legislation failed to pass the House.
Five years later, Mr. McGuire at San Francisco General Hospital took up the cause. "I had asked the six major tobacco companies to do it voluntarily or I would start a campaign to make it mandatory," recounts McGuire, who says the companies did not respond.