In Philadelphia, the government knows a thing or two about fires: In 1985 police burned down 61 row houses by dropping a bomb on the radical group MOVE. Now officials say it's smoking, rather than overly enthusiastic law enforcement, that is the main cause of blazes there, accounting for about a quarter of the city's 2,860 fires last year.
Mayor Ed Rendell has taken these numbers to heart. Having gained national attention by encouraging cities to sue firearms manufacturers for the damage caused by gun-wielding criminals, he is now thinking about suing tobacco companies for the damage caused by cigarette-wielding drunks. "We're looking at the fire department, this huge part of our budget, being expended because cigarette companies won't make safer products," a lawyer hired by Rendell told USA Today in March.
For decades anti-smoking activists have argued that tobacco companies could make cigarettes that are less apt to ignite upholstery or mattresses when dropped. On the same day that word of Philadelphia's possible suit hit the papers, Rep. Joe Moakley (D-Mass.) and Sen. Richard Durbin (D-Ill.) announced a bill aimed at requiring tobacco companies to produce cigarettes that go out when left unattended.
The tobacco companies continue to do research in this area, but they argue that smokers do not like cigarettes that are hard to keep lit. They also suggest that the safety benefits of a design change have been oversold. "Cigarettes have to be lit and burned to be used," a Philip Morris spokeswoman told The Philadelphia Inquirer, "and as a result, no `fire-safe' cigarette can replace the need for good common sense." But in a city that has pioneered the idea of demanding money because guns shoot and fire burns, common sense may have already gone up in smoke.