Fire-Safe Cigarettes

By ACSH Staff — Mar 13, 2003
We know that cigarettes are bad for our health, but there is an indirect way they can kill that we rarely stop to think about. Cigarettes are the number one cause of fatal house fires. The Toll

We know that cigarettes are bad for our health, but there is an indirect way they can kill that we rarely stop to think about. Cigarettes are the number one cause of fatal house fires.

The Toll

A drowsy smoker is relaxing in bed or on the sofa, puffing away. The smoker begins to nod off and is soon asleep; however, the cigarette is still burning. The burning butt or ash falls on the upholstered furniture or bedding, smolders and then bursts into flames. Since most often this happens at night, the smoker is caught off guard, along with others in the home or adjoining houses, resulting in injury or death. While only 6% of fires are started by cigarettes (approximately 140,000 per year), this type of fire accounts for nearly 30% of fire deaths in the United States (around 900 deaths in 1998), and the majority of these occur in homes. Cigarette-ignited fires are also the third leading cause of fire injury, resulting in roughly 2,500 injuries per year. In 1998, the societal costs and property damage of cigarette-ignited fires in the United States was nearly $7 billion.

Just in the past week there have been a number of cases nationwide of death and injury resulting from cigarette-ignited fires (as noted by see On Monday in Texas, a man, a woman, and a teenage boy were critically burned in a house fire that started after the man fell asleep on a sofa while smoking a cigarette. On Tuesday in Indiana, a four-year-old boy was found dead in a closet after he had ignited a blanket while playing with a cigarette lighter. Last Thursday in Missouri, a careless smoker caused a fire that killed a 79-year-old man in his condo. And last Tuesday in Upstate New York, five people two couples and an eighteen-month-old girl were killed in an apartment complex fire that was ignited by smoking materials. The village Police Chief was quoted as saying: "This is the worst fire and worst loss of life I've ever seen."

Mandating Fire-Safe Cigaretttes

Legislators have been interested in developing a fire-safe cigarette for over fifty years. However, production is not likely to occur until there exists some sort of state or federal law requiring fire-safe smoking materials, since the public is largely unaware of or unconcerned about the problem and since cigarettes were designed to keep burning when left unattended, which helps keep up demand. The quicker they burn, the more of them consumers will go through and the more packs will be sold. Tobacco companies have understandably worked hard to prevent legislation that would change this.

In April 2002, the Joseph Moakley Memorial Fire Safe Cigarette Act of 2002 was introduced in the House of Representatives by Ed Markey (D-MA) and James Hansen (R-UT) and in the Senate by Richard Durbin (D-IL) and Sam Brownback (R-KS). It is named after a Massachusetts congressman who became an advocate for fire-safe smoking materials after a family of seven from his Congressional district including five children all under the age of ten burned to death in a 1979 fire started by a cigarette.

The bill would establish a strong federal fire-safe cigarette standard, directing the Consumer Product Safety Commission to set fire safety standards for cigarettes. Supporters of the federal bill include the Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids, the Congressional Fire Services Institute, the International Association of Fire Fighters, SAFE (Safer America for Everyone), and NFPA (National Fire Protection Association), among others.

Tobacco Industry Secrecy

For years, the tobacco industry maintained that it was technically and economically infeasible to produce fire-safe smoking products. However, internal tobacco industry documents from these years tell a different story.

Gunja, et al (2002) examined internal tobacco industry documents made public through the 1998 Master Settlement Agreement regarding the industry's twenty-five years of research towards the development of a fire-safe cigarette. They found that while the tobacco industry claimed it was technically and economically impossible to produce fire-safe cigarettes, the industry actually had the ability to create fire-safe cigarettes years ago but never put them on the market. These internal documents also revealed a long-standing, well-coordinated industry plan to block proposed fire-safe legislation. For example, as Moakley himself recognized, the powerful tobacco lobby was able to shift the fire-resistance burden to the manufacturers of those household items that might be set on fire by ciagarettes: mattresses, furniture, and pajamas. He contended that the tobacco industry's solution was to "fire-proof the world against our torches."

Finally, the truth came out in 1984 thanks to the Technical Study Group created by the Federal Cigarette Safety Act. Ultimately, this study group provided Congress with the proof that fire-safe smoking materials are possible. From this, the Federal Safe Cigarette Act of 1990 was passed, which established the methodology for testing the ignition propensity of cigarettes and led to the fire-safe cigarette standard recommended in the proposed Moakley bill.

State Mandates vs. Federal Mandate

The Moakley bill has made little progress and the tobacco industry has fought hard against it. Currently, the bill has been read twice in Congress and is now held up in committee. However, individual states are taking action of their own. As of July 1, 2003, New York will be the first state to ban the sale of old-style cigarettes and mandate the sale of only fire-safe, self-extinguishing cigarettes. Those who violate the law will be heavily fined: wholesalers will be fined $10,000 per sale and retailers will be fined $500 for selling one to five cartons of the old cigarettes and $1,000 for selling more than five cartons.

Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Jersey, and Rhode Island are all considering similar legislation, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, and this possibility is helping to garner support for the federal bill. Altria (formerly Phillip Morris) the only U.S. company currently making self-extinguishing cigarettes supports the federal Moakley bill. With states passing individual legislation, resulting in varying standards, tobacco companies find themselves in a tough spot, having to choose between encouraging a single national standard or producing different cigarettes to meet the different states' fire-safe standards.

In the absence of national legislation or a voluntary change in manufacturing techniques, there are of course things that smokers can do to reduce the risk of fire. The National Fire Protection Association offers a few tips:

  • keep cigarettes away from flammable materials
  • don't smoke in bed
  • use large, deep ashtrays to prevent ashes from falling onto furniture (and don't allow ashtrays to balance precariously on sofas or chairs when in use)
  • drench cigarette butts and ashes in water before throwing them in the trash
  • if someone has been smoking in your home, inspect furniture upholstery, cushions, and trashcans for smoldering butts and ashes
  • keep smoking materials, lighters, and matches away from young children.

And there's an even more surefire solution: quit smoking. It might save not only your life but the lives of your loved ones and neighbors.

Karen Schneider is a research intern at the American Council on Science and Health.


December 31, 2003

Dear Karen:

Because you are an intern I will forgive your inaccurate account of cigarette-started fires and deaths.

If you are humble enough, look up the federal statistics on fire safety and deaths. I realize that you parroted the statistics from your information "specialist." Do you realize that the multi-state settlement was signed under oath, with the stipulation that nothing would be spent supporting the cause of tobacco and signed by Philip Morris, which has the market cornered on a type of tobacco rolling paper that is merely "fire-retardant" and not "fire-safe"?

It is very obvious that PM's Marlboros and Merits will be the only "fire-safe" cigarettes that can be sold. The publicly-funded anti-smoking industry and Philip Morris now sleep together, payback to PM for PM's two years of begging and being a gopher for the anti-industry. Your groups are shameful and without an ounce of respect for the country that you reside in. We are starting a new year and there is a chance for you to make amends for the abuse and mistrust caused by your industry.

Archie Anderson

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