NFPA study finds a stunning increase in cigarette-caused fires

Published on July 16, 2004

Yet only New York state requires fire-safe smokes

July 16, 2004 – The number of fires caused by lighted tobacco products almost always cigarettes increased by a stunning 19 percent in the most recent year studied, according to research by the NFPA (National Fire Protection Association). But laws requiring that cigarettes be designed to stop burning when not actively smoked, such as the one that went into effect in New York state last month, could sharply reduce this destruction.

Cigarettes are the leading cause of fatal fires in the United States. Smoking materials (a category that encompasses only lighted tobacco products, not matches and lighters) led to one out of four fire deaths in 1999, more than any other cause of fire. 

But only the state of New York has moved to protect its citizens from such fires. Starting June 28, cigarettes sold in New York must be self-extinguishing, and all cigarette brands must be tested to make sure they self-extinguish at least 75 percent of the time.

NFPA's statistical analysis sheds light on how cigarettes lead to fatal fires. Contrary to the popular image, most victims of smoking-material fires did not fall asleep smoking. Many are not even smokers. Rather, these fires typically started when someone abandoned or improperly disposed of smoking materials.

Most victims were in the room where the fire started, and most had some condition that limited their ability to get out. Often they were asleep, but a significant number were impaired by drugs, alcohol, disability or old age. Indeed, people older than 64 are more likely to die in smoking-material fires than younger people, even though they are less likely to smoke.

In 1999, smoking-material fires increased 19 percent over the previous year to 167,700, resulting in 807 civilian deaths, 2,193 civilian injuries, and $559.1 million in direct property damage. Deaths and injuries both decreased by 11 percent from 1998 to 1999, but property damage costs, adjusted for inflation, increased by 33 percent.

"Cigarette fires are a major cause of death that we know how to address,'' said James M. Shannon, NFPA president and CEO. "A cigarette touching something combustible can take significant time to produce a fire. Cut down the burning time of cigarettes and you can prevent fires."

The effort to prevent deaths from cigarette-caused fires has a long history. In 1979, after a fire started by a cigarette killed five young children in a Boston suburb, the late U.S. Rep. Joseph Moakley (D-Mass.) introduced a bill that would have required the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) to regulate cigarettes as a fire hazard. In 1987, a federally-mandated study found that it was possible to manufacture cigarettes that would be less likely to start fires.

The National Institute of Standards and Technology later developed a method for testing whether cigarettes were fire-safe. Moakley introduced legislation calling for the CPSC to develop standards for fire-safe cigarettes in 1994 and again in 1999. Earlier this year, U.S. Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.) and U.S. Rep. Edward Markey (D-Mass.) introduced the Cigarette Fire Safety Act of 2004 (H.R. 4155), which would require the CPSC to promulgate a standard for fire-safe cigarettes around the country. Shannon spoke at a press conference supporting the bill on May 5. The bill is now before the House Committee on Energy and Commerce.

"Will we continue to allow cigarette fires to kill hundreds of people every year, smokers and non-smokers, adults and children?" Shannon asked. "Or will we act on what we know and require that cigarettes be made fire-safe?"

NFPA has been a worldwide leader in providing fire, electrical, building, and life safety to the public since 1896. The mission of the international nonprofit organization is to reduce the worldwide burden of fire and other hazards on the quality of life by providing and advocating scientifically-based consensus codes and standards, research, training and education.