Cigarettes' Role in Fires Growing

Smoking is hazardous to your health in more ways than one. They're the leading cause of fatal fires in the U.S., causing one of every four fire deaths, and while the overall incidence of house fires is falling, the number of fires started by cigarettes is rising.

The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) says the number of fires started by cigarettes increased 19 percent in the most recent year studied. It's urging more states and cities to follow New York's lead in requiring that cigarettes be designed to stop burning when they're not being actively smoked.

New York is the only state that has passed the cigarette safety law. Starting in June 2004, 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.

"Cigarette fires are a major cause of death that we know how to address,'' said James M. Shannon, NFPA president and chief executive officer. "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."

NFPA's 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, accoording to the NFPA.

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.

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.

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