The EU's 27 governments endorsed a plan to introduce the more fire-safe cigarettes, a standard which could come into force as early as next year, depending on how long it takes to get the industry to switchover.
The plan is meant to follow a trend by the United States and Canada which have already introduced the new slower burning cigarettes, which help reduce the number of deaths from fires at home caused by dropped or unattended and lit cigarettes.
"Clearly it is better not to smoke at all," said Meglena Kuneva, the EU's consumer affairs commissioner. "But if people choose to smoke then requiring tobacco companies to make this small technical change is another step in the right direction toward reducing some of the terrible damage that can be caused."
She pointed to research in the US which showed that cigarettes were the leading cause of home fire fatalities every year. Statistics for the 27-EU nation bloc show similar high death rates.
Cigarette-related fires cause 520 deaths and 1,600 injuries every year in 14 EU countries, the European Commission said, citing data from those countries.
It added that unattended lit cigarettes were also a major cause of forest fires in many southern EU member states. In Italy 32 percent of all unintentional forest fires last year were caused by cigarettes and matches abandoned in dry timber areas, according to an EU study.
In Portugal, lit and dropped cigarettes were the cause of 18 percent of fires there in 2005.
"This is a superb opportunity to save more fires that are needlessly lost, particularly at home," said Sir Ken Knight, former fire chief of the London Fire Brigade, who now advises the British government on fire and rescue issues. "There is little doubt that we would see fire deaths reduced."
Under the new safety standards, cigarette manufacturers will have to wrap cigarettes with two or three thin bands of thickened paper that act to "slow down" a burning cigarette. If left smoldering, the burning tobacco will hit one of the bands and self-extinguish.
Kuneva said the drafting of the new rules, which would get under way shortly and could take as long as two years, could foresee transition periods for cigarette makers.
The state of New York, in the United States was the first to introduce the safer cigarette in 2004, and 22 other US states have now implemented similar legislation which will come into force around 2010. Canadian rules came into force in 2005, and Australia is planing to introduce similar rules soon, the EU said.
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