The Smoking-Material Fire Problem

Report: NFPA's "The Smoking-Material Fire Problem"
Author: John R. Hall, Jr.
Issued: July 2013

Analysis of fires involving smoking materials (i.e., tobacco products), including recent trends, data from other countries, and what materials are most often ignited. 

Executive Summary

In 2011, U.S. fire departments responded to an estimated 90,000 smoking-material fires in the U.S., largely unchanged from 90,800 in 2010. These fires resulted in an estimated 540 civilian deaths, 1,640 civilian injuries and $621 million in direct property damage; deaths were down substantially from the year before.

Home structure fires dominated all these measures of loss except for fire incidents. In 2011, an estimated 17,600 smoking-material home structure fires caused 490 civilian deaths (19% of all home structure fire deaths), 1,370 civilian injuries and $516 million in direct property damage. The other 72,400 smoking-material fires in 2011 were mostly outdoor fires (60,200 fires in trash, vegetation and other outdoor combustibles).

Estimates of fires reported to U.S. municipal fire departments are based on data from the National Fire Incident Reporting System (NFIRS) and the NFPA annual survey. "Smoking materials" are lighted tobacco products but do not include lighting implements such as matches and lighters. Smoking materials are identified under heat source, and estimates include a proportional share of fires coded as heat source unknown or as unknown between smoking material and open flame source.

The long-term trend in smoking-material fires has been down, by 73% from 1980 to 2011, helped by the decline in smoking, the effect of standards and regulations that have made mattresses and upholstered furniture more resistant to cigarette ignition, and more recently, the adaption of fire-safe cigarette requirements throughout the country.

Reduced ignition strength ("fire safe") cigarettes appear to be the principal reason for a 30% decline in smoking-material fire deaths from 2003-2011. Canada and all U.S. states have passed laws or other requirements that all cigarettes sold must have sharply reduced ignition strength (ability to start fires), as determined by ASTM Standard E2187-04. A simple projection linking the percentage decline in fires or fire deaths to the percentage of smokers covered suggested that when the law was fully effective across the entire country (in late 2011), the reduction in fire deaths should reach 30%, relative to levels in 2003, the last year before the fire-safe cigarette law was effective in any state. This year’s report included 2011 fire experience, and as predicted in our last report estimated fire deaths were 30% lower than in 2003. During the same period, the number of smokers fell by only about 4% (as a larger decline in the percent of people who smoke was largely offset by the increase in the U.S. population). Changes in cigarette-ignition resistance in mattresses and upholstered furniture had been underway for more than two decades by 2003, for products whose typical product life is only 10-15 years. It seems clear that the change in the cigarette has been the principal driver in the 30% decline in smoking-material fire deaths.

Trash, mattresses and bedding, and upholstered furniture, are the items most commonly ignited in smoking-material home fires. Excluding trash, these items also account for most associated fire deaths. Three-quarters of civilian deaths due to smoking-material fires involved fires that started in bedrooms (40%) or in living rooms, family rooms, and dens (35%).

One out of four fatal victims of smoking-material fires is not the smoker whose cigarette started the fire.

The risk of dying in a home structure fire caused by smoking materials rises with age until age 85, then declines slightly. Nearly half (46%) of fatal home smoking-material-fire victims were age 65 or older, compared to their 13% share of the population. Older adults (age 65 and over) are less likely to smoke than younger adults. Therefore, their high rates of smoking-material fire deaths per million people are even more noteworthy.

A USFA/NFPA study recommended educational messages to support the behavioral side of a comprehensive strategy to reduce smoking fires:

  • If you smoke, smoke outside.
  • Whenever you smoke, use deep, wide, sturdy ashtrays. Ashtrays should be set on something sturdy and hard to ignite, like an end table.
  • Before you throw out butts and ashes, make sure they are out. Dowsing in water or sand is the best way to do that.
  • Check under furniture cushions and in other places people smoke for cigarette butts that may have fallen out of sight.
  • Smoking should not be allowed in a home where medical oxygen is used.
  • To prevent a deadly cigarette fire, you have to be alert. You won’t be if you are sleepy, have been drinking, or have taken medicine or other drugs.