Fire Safety (Reduced Ignition Propensity in Cigarettes)

Points of Order – in the House of Commons at 1:31 pm on 7th June 2006.

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Photo of David Taylor David Taylor Labour, North West Leicestershire 1:31 pm, 7th June 2006

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to align cigarette manufacturing standards with international best practice so as to reduce the number of fires and fatalities in the home caused by cigarettes.

This Bill would require that tobacco firms modify their cigarettes so that they have a reduced ignition propensity. Essentially, that means that such cigarettes go out if left without being drawn on for more than a few seconds. The House is of course well aware of the toll of premature death and disease caused by smoking. As a result of recent debates, if nothing else, we are also now well informed about the damage that breathing in other people's smoke can do to one's health. However, there is a third element of the misery caused by smoking that is perhaps less well understood, and that is the number of deaths and injuries from fires started by cigarettes. I commend the Fire Brigades Union and Action on Smoking and Health for the work they have done to highlight the continuing risks associated with smouldering cigarettes.

Despite some success with "stub it out" campaigns, the number of tragic and avoidable deaths in such domestic fires has proved hard to drive down. The Government report "Fire Statistics for the United Kingdom" shows that in 2004, 3,500 fires in dwellings were caused by smoking materials, not including cigarette lighters and matches, and a further 1,600 in other buildings. Over the previous 10 years, the number of such fires totalled more than 60,000. Fires in dwellings caused in that way resulted in 114 deaths in 2004 and 1,260 non-fatal casualties. Smokers' materials are the most frequent source of ignition causing accidental dwelling fire deaths, accounting for around a third of such deaths every year. The vast majority of those fires were caused by manufactured cigarettes.

The victims of those fires are more likely to be from low-income households and of course they include non-smokers as well as smokers, children as well as adults, and firefighters as well as members of the public, so this is no trivial matter. If the dry statistics are not enough, the human stories behind them are all too evident. For example, the Edinburgh Evening News of 16 May this year reported on a fire that left a child aged less than 18 months with burns over almost half his body, requiring the amputation of two of his toes. It also left his family without a home. By great good fortune, and thanks to the presence of a smoke alarm, no lives were lost. Investigators believe that that fire, like so many others, was most likely to have been caused by smokers' materials.

Tobacco manufacturers have long dismissed the link between cigarettes and fire deaths as "merely a public perception", but for more than 20 years, as internal industry documents clearly show, the tobacco industry has known full well that many of those fires could be easily prevented. It argues that the introduction of cigarettes with a reduced propensity to ignite would lead to more negligent behaviour, but that is not a valid argument as the changes needed to the cigarette are slight and unlikely to be noticed by smokers. There are also many examples of safety standards being imposed on consumer products to protect public health without triggering dangerous or irrational behaviour, such as seatbelts and airbags in cars. If that argument were accepted, nothing would be accomplished by any attempt by the authorities to impose safety standards on consumer products. To avoid misleading descriptions, I suggest the use of the term "reduced ignition propensity"—as used in Canada—rather than "fire safe" or "self-extinguishing".

In January 2000, the tobacco firm Philip Morris introduced a reduced ignition propensity cigarette into the market, using small speed bands on special paper, which ensured that the cigarette rapidly went out if not actively smoked. In August 2000, New York state passed fire safety regulations requiring that all cigarettes sold there had to meet reduced ignition standards by June 2003. Early figures suggest that that may have reduced the number of fire deaths from smoking materials across the state by at least a third. Similar standards now apply in Canada, and the regulatory impact assessment there forecasts a reduction in the number of fires caused by manufactured cigarettes of up to two thirds. In the US, Illinois and Vermont have already followed the example of New York.

In this country, a fire research report done for the former Office of the Deputy Prime Minister estimated that, had cigarettes in the UK conformed to the highest standards in New York, the number of fires caused by cigarettes would have fallen by nearly two thirds. The ODPM figures suggest that that would have meant 78 fewer deaths in 2003 alone.

Such standards could be introduced across the European Union, under the general product safety directive. Indeed, the European Commission is believed to favour such a move. Therefore, I hope very much that we can now discount early rumours that officials at the Department of Trade and Industry might not support further progress on this issue, when the relevant Committee meets in Brussels on 13 and 14 June next week. I understand and accept that the DTI rightly seeks to protect business from unnecessary regulation, but I do not accept that the bulging bank accounts of the tobacco industry really need such diligent defence by Government officials. Surely the experience of that child in Edinburgh and the thousands of other victims of fires caused by cigarettes merit a little consideration.

If DTI officials are really so worried, let me reassure them that reduced ignition standards could be introduced at minimal cost to business and without threatening sales. Many of us may say in relation to cigarettes that that is not something to be given undue priority in any event. I hope that, now this matter has been drawn to the attention of Ministers, they will instruct their officials to take a more constructive approach. However, this House does not need to wait for the cumbersome processes of the European Union and the internal workings of Whitehall Departments to bear fruit. My Bill would require this simple and overdue measure to be introduced in the United Kingdom.

Smoking is a lawful activity in a free society, but it brings with it terrible problems and it is surely our job as legislators to ensure that they are minimised as far as possible. In this case, we could introduce reduced ignition standards without affecting anyone's freedom to any significant extent. The number of fires would be reduced. The number of deaths and serious injuries in fires would fall too, and insurance costs would fall with them. The Department of Health would be assisted in its hugely important aim of reducing health inequalities. The Department of Communities and Local Government would be helped to meet its equally crucial public service agreement target of cutting the number of deaths from fires in the home by a fifth by 2010. And fewer young children like the Edinburgh toddler would be exposed to horrific accidents and injuries.

In my own county of Leicestershire, a 55-year-old Anstey man would still be alive today if this Bill had been on the statute book, as would a 70-year-old woman from Fleckney. Residents in Thringstone and Ravenstone, wards that I have represented at various stages in my local government career, would not have had some serious fires occur in their homes—so it is not surprising that the Bill is supported by firefighters who, all too often, have to risk their own safety to deal with fires caused by cigarettes. That is especially true for those in the Leicestershire fire service, whom I thank for their research into one element of the Bill.

In short, everyone would gain from my Bill—and even the tobacco industry would barely notice its effect. The recent historic votes in this House on the Health Bill show that there is overwhelming support for action to reduce the burden of death and disease caused by smoking. We must disregard the rather odd conclusion reached yesterday by the Economic Affairs Committee in the other place, which suggested that we should have legislated to prevent passive smoking in the home—how on earth would we do that?—instead of taking the historic step of eliminating it in workplaces and enclosed public spaces. I chair the all-party group on smoking and health, and I respectfully suggest that their lordships are somewhat detached from reality on this issue.

I recently tabled early-day motion 2290, which draws attention to the hundreds of lives being lost in fires caused by smoking-related materials. I am gratified at the extent of support already shown by parliamentary colleagues for that motion.

Where we cannot persuade people to quit smoking altogether, we can—and must—act to reduce the harm caused by that habit and addiction. My Bill is a simple and overdue measure that is designed to achieve precisely that. I commend it to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by David Taylor, Norman Baker, Mr. Kevin Barron, Mr. Peter Bone, Colin Burgon, Mr. David Drew, Dr. Ian Gibson, Mr. Lindsay Hoyle, Helen Jones, Mr. Gordon Prentice, John Robertson and Bob Russell.