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Questions and Answers on NIST Reduced Ignition Propensity Cigarette Testing

February 20, 2001

1. What is a reduced ignition propensity cigarette?

A reduced ignition propensity (more commonly, but incorrectly known as "fire-safe") cigarette is one that has been designed to be less likely than a conventional cigarette to ignite soft furnishings such as a couch or mattress.

2. How serious is the problem of cigarette-related fires?

The most recent statistics (1997) from the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission indicate that about 25 percent of all U.S. fire fatalities occur when a smoker falls asleep in bed or a lighted cigarette is dropped on a couch or chair. In 1997, about 900 people, including 140 children, were killed in cigarette-related fires. Cigarette-initiated fires are the single largest cause of fire deaths in the United States.

3. What was NIST's previous involvement with reduced ignition propensity cigarettes?

The National Institute of Standards and Technology has been involved in research concerning reduced ignition propensity cigarettes since the 1980s. In both 1984 and 1990, research studies were legislated by Congress as the responsibility of Technical Advisory Groups. These TAGs, led both times by NIST fire researcher Dr. Richard Gann, involved NIST, the Consumer Product Safety Commission, the U.S. Fire Administration, the Federal Trade Commission, the National Cancer Institute, representatives of the tobacco and furniture industries, fire safety professionals, and public health/safety advocates.

4. What was determined by the two Technical Advisory Groups under NIST's leadership?

As mandated under the Cigarette Safety Act of 1984

The first TAG was assigned under the Cigarette Safety Act of 1984 to determine whether it was technically and commercially feasible to develop a cigarette that would have a significantly reduced propensity to ignite furniture and mattresses. The research showed that the manufacturing was within the capabilities of the tobacco industry at that time, and that such cigarettes may be commercially feasible as well.

The research also determined that thinner cigarettes with less tobacco and less porous paper, which cuts air circulation into the cigarette, could significantly reduce the chance of igniting soft furnishings.

As mandated by the Fire-Safe Cigarette Act of 1990

The second TAG was assigned under the Fire-Safe Cigarette Act of 1990 to develop a reliable test that would accurately and consistently reflect what happens when cigarettes are dropped on furnishings.

Two tests were developed, tested and made available to the tobacco industry as the basis for a performance standard. Nine laboratories, including four in the cigarette industry, showed that both methods produced results that were repeatable and more reproducible than conventional fire tests at the time.

The 1990 act also directed NIST to compile performance data for commercial cigarettes using the test methods. NIST researchers found that, with one minor exception, the 14 best sellers at that time ignited the fabrics in all tests. The tobacco packing density, paper permeability and circumference were similar among these brands. By contrast, tests of six other brands on the market at the time showed much lower ignition propensities. Both sets of cigarettes produced similar amounts of tar, nicotine and carbon monoxide. This is an encouraging indicator that the toxicities of the smoke from the two sets of cigarettes were not likely to be greatly different.

5. Why did NIST get involved again with reduced ignition propensity cigarettes?

On May 15, 2000, the Federal Trade Commission requested that NIST conduct tests to determine whether and to what extent a new cigarette brand then being test marketed reduced the risk of ignition, if dropped or discarded. These data, the FTC said, would greatly assist the Commission in its responsibilities over tobacco products.

6. Why did NIST agree to test the modified cigarettes as requested?

While NIST does not routinely perform product tests, the agency recognizes the important role of the FTC in assuring the public of the veracity of product claims and the high potential for less fire-prone cigarettes to reduce fire deaths and injuries. Therefore, NIST's Building and Fire Research Laboratory agreed to measure the ignition propensity of the new technology cigarettes relative to the performance of the unmodified product. NIST's Dr. Richard Gann led the testing group.

7. What was the nature of the NIST testing?

Two types of tests were conducted on both the modified cigarettes (purchased from a test market city) and locally purchased (in the Washington, D.C., area which was not a test market), non-modified Merit cigarettes. Both tests were developed by NIST under the Fire-Safe Cigarette Act of 1990 and are now under consideration as an industry standard by the American Society of Testing and Materials.

The first test, called the mockup ignition test, involves placing a lit cigarette on top of a flat surface "mocked" up to simulate a section from a piece of furniture.

The model consists of a piece of fabric covering a layer of foam padding. The test reveals if the cigarette will ignite the mockup, and if so, how long it takes form that ignition to occur.

The second test, called the cigarette extinction test, involves placing a lit cigarette on several layers of filter paper. The filter paper is the same extremely pure and strictly standardized cellulose paper manufactured for the chemical industry. It is used to ensure repeatable test results. This test reveals if the cigarette self extinguishes or burns for its full length.

NIST measured the ignition propensity of the modified Merit cigarettes relative to the performance of the unmodified product. This was not an absolute measure of ignition probability in real circumstances, but is a strong indicator as to whether a reduction in cigarette-initiated fires might be expected.

8. When was testing of the modified and conventional cigarettes conducted?

NIST began testing the two types of cigarettes in June 2000 and completed it in September 2000. A report with the test results was transmitted to the FTC in November 2000. The FTC officially approved the report on February 15, 2001.

Gann, R.G., Steckler, K.D., Ruitberg, S., Guthrie, W.F., and Levenson, M.S., "Relative Ignition Propensity of Test Market Cigarettes," NIST Technical Note 1436, National Institute of Standards and Technology, Gaithersburg, MD, 34 pages (2001).

9. What was the conclusion of the report?

Analysis of the test data shows that the modified cigarette has a lower relative ignition propensity than the conventional cigarette.

10. What about the toxicity of less fire-prone cigarettes?

Under the Fire-Safe Cigarette Act of 1990, the CPSC convened a panel of toxicity experts from the public and private sectors. They developed a tiered set of tests to assess the toxicology of cigarette smoke, beginning with quick and inexpensive procedures and proceeding to comprehensive methods. NIST was not asked to perform such tests and is not equipped to do so.