A smoldering cigarette butt in a trash can sparked a fraternity fire that killed five students at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 1996, and smoking materials may have caused a 2007 Brunswick County beach house fire that killed seven South Carolina college students.
Fire safety officials believe legislation taking effect Friday requiring tobacco companies to sell "fire-safe" cigarettes in North Carolina will lead to fewer smoking-related fire fatalities, serious burns and property damage.
North Carolina's law, passed in 2007, is one of more than 30 laws taking effect with the new year.
People shouldn't have to suffer because someone was careless with a cigarette, said Ernest Grant with the North Carolina Jaycee Burn Center at UNC Hospitals in Chapel Hill, which receives as many as 150 patients annually with injuries related to unattended cigarettes.
"The whole purpose of this legislation is not to tell people you can't smoke but if you are smoking there's a safer way to do it," Grant said.
The most high-profile change will begin Saturday when a ban on smoking in the state's restaurants and bars will take effect. Smokers could face $50 fines and restaurants could be penalized $200 a day for ignoring the law.
Other new-year laws will streamline local government animal shelter rules when people try to find lost pets, crack down on motorists inappropriately using handicapped parking permits, and require county commissions and local school boards to adopt ethics codes.
The "fire-safe" cigarettes are made with different paper that slows ignition, making them more likely to go out if left unattended. The standards require cigarettes to burn out at least 75 percent of the time when not in active use. The cigarettes can be lit again.
North Carolina is one of 12 states making the change Friday to require all cigarettes to meet standards first implemented by New York in 2004. Every state but Wyoming now has a similar law that is in effect or will take effect by 2011, said Lorraine Carli, a spokeswoman for the National Fire Protection Association.
Carli said North Carolina's passage helped build momentum for the legislation to go essentially nationwide because of the state's financial and historical connections to tobacco: "If it can happen in a state with a big tobacco industry, it could happen everywhere."
Carli said the association of builders, architects and other fire safety officials projects the laws could help cut smoking-related fire fatalities by up to half — deaths that typically number 700 to 900 annually.
North Carolina law gives vendors time to sell their inventories of cigarettes that don't meet the standard.
Another law specifies that owners looking for a wayward pet usually are entitled to view every animal held in a shelter operated by or for local governments. The shelter also must be open at least three days a week for four hours a day. Animals also must be made available for adoption before being sold or euthanized following a required 72-hour waiting period.
"We needed to standardize the process so people did get a reasonable opportunity to claim their pets before they were euthanized," said Sen. Floyd McKissick, D-Durham, the bill's primary sponsor.
Law enforcement also have more tools to stop motorists from using handicapped parking permits that don't belong to them or have expired.
The expiration date on the placards now will be visible from at least 20 feet. Recipients also will get a registration card that police can check against the placards to prevent fraud.
The new local government ethics law also requires elected and appointed officials to receive two hours of ethics education within 12 months of taking office.
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