Cigarettes and Fire

[Cigarettes, Fires, and Deaths][Prevention of Cigarette Induced Fires]
[Consumer Products Safety Commission][Logal Government Legislation]
[Public Relations][Innocent Victims]

 There can be no doubt that cigarette smoking is related to the combustion of tobacco and paper.  Unfortunately, however, the fire at the tip of a cigarette can ignite more than just tobacco.  It has long been recognized that cigarette smoking poses a fire risk not only to the smoker, but also to the immediate environment such as the person's house, store, car, or even commercial airliner.  However, it has only been recently that the degree of this danger been recognized.

Cigarettes, Fires, and Deaths

 According to a recent report by the United States Fire Administration, cigarette caused fires killed over 2,300 men, women and children in the United States each year (1,2).  Local, state, and national fire statistics all agree in listing cigarette caused fires as the leading cause of fire fatalities.  In fact, one study of 530 fire fatalities in Maryland during a six year period between 1971 and 1977 found that 45 percent of fatalities occurred in fires that were caused by cigarettes.  The second most common cause of fire fatalities was due to heating equipment malfunction, but accounted for only 8 percent of fatalities (3), with all other causes falling far behind.  Additionally, fires caused by cigarette smoking produce about 6,000 injuries a year.  These statistics are especially tragic when it is realized that these fires are all preventable, probably more so than any other cause of fire!  Also, the people who are killed or injured in a fire caused by careless cigarette smoking include not only the smoker, but also innocent occupants of the building such as family and friends.  Careless smoking is often associated with the person falling asleep at night with a lit cigarette, or carelessly tossing into the trash can a cigarette which was not completely extinguished.  These fires are all preventable because smoking is preventable.
 Loss of life is not the only tragedy associated with cigarette caused fires.  In 1981, there were 65,000 fires caused by cigarettes while resulted in a staggering $300 million in property damage.  Needless to say, this conflagration adds considerably to the costs of fire insurance to everyone, smoker and non-smoker alike!

Prevention of Cigarette Induced Fires

 Three ways to prevent fires caused by cigarette smoking have been proposed (1).  These methods are patient education, environmental change, and cigarette manufacturing change.

 Patient Education.  The first method is to encourage persons who smoke against smoking in bed and to remind them to dispose of their cigarette butts properly.  Taking care of the burning cigarette may not be practical as many fires induced by cigarette smoke are caused by the smoker falling asleep with a lit cigarette.  Also, fully half of all cigarette fire victims are intoxicated and frequently may not be of the proper mind to take care of their lit cigarette in a safe manner.
 Environmental Change.  The second approach which is (as might be expected) favored by the tobacco industry, is to make the environment more resistant to fire from a burning cigarette.  It is proposed that fire in sofas and beds may be prevented by adding chemicals and changing their construction  Indeed, some progress has been made in the reduction of cigarette fires using these methods.  However, the situation will certainly not change overnight as the existing furniture, carpets, and bedding will probably remain in use for several decades and cannot be easily rendered fire resistant.  Additionally, a tremendous cost would be passed on to the general consumer for making furniture fire-resistant.   It has been estimated by the furniture industry that between $1 billion and $2 billion would be required in additional costs to everyone to achieve this goal.  Even if these laudable goals could be achieved within the next few decades and fire-resistant furniture replace regular furniture throughout the land, there would be the new concerns about the mutagenic and carcinogenic potential of these new chemicals that would be added to the environment (1).  Finally, it seems backward to make the environment more resistant to cigarette induced fires rather than to make the cigarettes more fire-safe.
 Cigarette Manufacturing Change.  The third method to reduce fires within the home is to modify the source of fire, the cigarette.  It is not too surprising that the tobacco industry claims that this is impossible.  This is a natural position to take by the cigarette industry for many reasons.  First, current cigarettes burn at 700 degrees C for approximately 30 to 60 minutes without being puffed (11).  According to fire experts, this is more than enough time to ignite a sofa or chair into which the cigarette might inadvertently fall.
 In the cigarette manufacturing process, there are many variable which might be changed to produce a safer cigarette.  These might include the paper porosity, tobacco moisture, tobacco packing density, chemical additives, etc.  The call for a fire-safe cigarette based upon somehow changing the cigarette manufacturing process dates at least back to the 1920's when the Massachusetts Congresswoman Edith Nourse Rogers tried unsuccessfully for a cigarette that would go out within a few minutes after being put down.  Over the years since then, dozens of patents have been issued for self-extinguishing, more fire-safe cigarettes.  However, the tobacco industry claims that these methods would either not be practical or possible, or would require the addition of toxic chemicals to their cigarettes.
 There have, however, been several studies that have demonstrated the feasibility of a fire-safe cigarette.  A study conducted by Arthur D. Little, Inc. in Cambridge, MA concluded that if cigarettes could be made to extinguish within 10 minutes after being placed on furniture, combustion would most likely not occur.  Thus, it is not necessary to make a cigarette that would immediately extinguish itself.  Rather, it is probably only required that cigarette to fizzle out within ten minutes to significantly reduce the possibility of fire.

 This is not an impossible dream either.  There have been over 95 patents issued throughout the world for methods to render a cigarette fire-safe to self-extinguishing (4).  These methods have received some critical evaluation.  One patent tested by the California Bureau of Home Furnishings in the State Department of Consumer Affairs has been found to successfully cause cigarettes to self-extinguish (5).

 There is little question that a fire-safety cigarette is a technical possibility.  Two brands that are already being produced have been shown to be fire-safe: More and Sherman's.  These cigarettes are currently being sold nationwide and are more fire-safe than all the other brands tested (1).  In short, the tobacco industry is already doing in some small measure what it has said is impossible.  However, it is also apparent that there is little incentive, economically speaking, to produce cigarettes which spontaneously extinguish.  Rather, the opposite is what is happening.  Cigarettes are produced which are purposely made to continue burning, probably on the assumption that nobody would buy cigarettes if they had to be repeatedly lit.  Documents from P. Lorillard and Philip Morris Research Centers maintain that the continuous slow burning of cigarettes even when it is not being actively inhaled, is encouraged by adding citrate and phosphate compounds or calcium carbonate to the paper or wrapper (6).  The addition of compounds encourage the cigarette to continue burning like a fuse when presumably they might spontaneously go out otherwise.

 The U.S. Department of Commerce through the National Bureau of Standards has proposed several possible other means whereby cigarettes could be encouraged to self-extinguish.  These goals included the following recommendations:

 1. low diameter (less contact with inflammables).
 2. low packing density (reduced fuel).
 3. filter (no increase in airflow at the butt end).
 4. paper with low citrate content
 5. high burning rate (reduced contact of heat surface and inflammables.
 The report then concluded that:
 Cigarettes with one or more of these construction parameters are already in production.  According to our best information, producers do not even know that some of their cigarettes have lower ignition propensity (1,7).
 The American Burn Association asked cigarette companies for their help in the manufacture of slow-burning cigarettes.  Presumably, this association sees daily, first-hand evidence of the unnecessary tragedies brought about by cigarette produced house fires.  The Board of the American Burn Association wanted to know the opinion of the cigarette manufacturers before they would support a fire-safe cigarette campaign.  There was no reply (1).

Consumer Products Safety Commission

 Congressional interest in fire-safe cigarettes may occur sporadically and be related to a tragedy that occurs in a single congressman's district.  Such a tragedy occurred in 1979 in the political district of Rep. Joe Moakley (D-MA) where a family of seven were killed in a cigarette fire.  In that year, Rep. Moakley introduced a fill in Congress to require that cigarettes self-extinguish within five minutes of being left unattended.  The following year, Sen. Alan Cranston (D-CA) and Rep. Moakley took a different tact by introducing bills to direct the Consumer Products Safety Commission to determine whether a fire-safe cigarette was feasible.
 The Consumer Products Safety Commission has jurisdiction over 15,000 products, and in the area of fire safety, it has jurisdiction over such diverse items as fire resistance standards for children's sleepwear, mattresses, carpeting, etc.  Unfortunately, however, the Commission lacked jurisdiction over the product, cigarettes, that produced more injuries and deaths than any other.  Interestingly, this jurisdiction hiatus was specifically designed by Congress when the agency was created in 1972, and again in 1976 when Congress barred the Commission from regulating "tobacco or tobacco products."  Unfortunately, the Commission never gained this authority, causing Rep. Moakley to complain in a speech about the "misguided policy of making the world safe for the cigarette...While hundreds of millions of dollars were being spent to make furniture, rugs, and mattresses resistant to cigarettes, nothing was being done to make the cigarette less likely to ignite."

Local Government Legislation

 Because of the public concern, legislation has been introduced on the state level to mandate production of a slower burning cigarette, largely unsuccessfully.  For example, in 1980 Oregon became the first state to attempt such legislation.  This bill called for fire-safe cigarettes to be sold by the state three years after passage of the bill.  The bill was passed by the Oregon Senate but then killed in a House committee.  Since then, eight states (including New York and California) have attempted passage of legislation without success.

 Even though these bills were eventually defeated, the prospect of dealing with different regulations from state to state might have encouraged the tobacco industry to seek a respite.  Congress passed the Cigarette Safety Act of 1984 with support of the tobacco industry, which called for a technical feasibility study for making cigarettes more fire-safe with "a reduced propensity to ignite upholstered furniture and mattresses."  State legislatures informally agreed to put legislation on hold until the results of this study came out.  The Cigarette Safety Act created a 15-member Technical Study Group with members from the government, health and fire prevention groups, and the cigarette and furniture industries, to oversee a series of technical and economic studies.  The study finally concluded that thin cigarettes made with more porous paper and with the tobacco less densely packed were considerably more fire-safe than their counterparts.  Additionally, the study noted that, "some of the best performing experimental cigarettes had per puff tar, nicotine, and CO (carbon monoxide) yields comparable to typical commercial cigarettes."  The latter conclusion rebutted a common tobacco industries claim that more fire-safe cigarettes might be more unsafe with respect to smoke content.  Finally, the reported concluded that, "it is technically feasible and may be commercially feasible to develop cigarettes that will have a significantly reduced propensity to ignite upholstered furniture and mattresses."

 The tobacco industry has claimed, however, that cigarettes manufactured with the above-noted changes would be impractical, and would produce a cigarette that would be a commercial failure.  Indeed, Dr. Alexander Spears, executive vice president of Lorilland, Inc. told the advisory group that smoking a cigarette with tobacco less densely packed would be roughly like sucking a thick milk shake through a straw.  Dr. Preston Leake of American Tobacco Co. stated that, "I don't think you could give them (the experimental cigarettes) away."

 Obviously, more research is needed to determine whether a commercially viable, fire-safe cigarette can be produced.  It does seem, however, that a cigarette which would both please the smoker and yet be fire-safe could be manufactured if sufficient research could be applied to the problem.

Public Relations

 It has been suspected that one reason why the tobacco industry has been so slow to manufacture or even support research concerning a fire-safe cigarette is their vulnerability to liability.  If it can be shown that such a fire-safe cigarette is possible, the industry might then be open to the accusation that deaths during fires caused by cigarettes could have been prevented and then be bombarded by lawsuits contending that the industry is at least partially responsible for these deaths.

 The Tobacco Industry apparently realizes its tenuous position in the public eye and has attempted a publicity campaign to better its image.  The major brunt of this publicity campaign has been to contribute money and support to fire prevention programs.  While these contributions are certainly laudable, it is indeed ironic that they come from the industry that is at least indirectly responsible for so many house fires, deaths, and loss of property.  The Tobacco Institute and Philip Morris have contributed money and equipment to many fire organizations throughout the country, often in states that are considering passage of legislation that would prohibit tobacco manufacturers from adding burn-enhancing chemicals to cigarettes.  Horace Kornegay, Chairman of the board of the Tobacco Institute, has named New York City, Seattle, Des Moines, Boston, Milwaukee, Chicago, Detroit, Baltimore, and Portland, Oregon as recipients of money from the tobacco industry (1,8).  This publicity campaign has apparently been working as the New York City's Fire Prevention 1982 Award went to Philip Morris USA.  This award was presented to the corporations which have helped "foster and underwrite the department's fire prevention efforts (9)."  In April 1983, another award was given by the Fire Department of New York:

 In Appreciation for his corporation's ongoing financial and technical support of the Fire Department of New York, Shepard Pollack, president of Philip Morris USA, was recently named a deputy chief of the department.
 Additionally, the Tobacco Institute has developed and distributed a fund-raising and membership recruitment kit to over 4,000 volunteer fire departments.  Naturally, there is often some bias in these distributions.  For example, according to the Tobacco Institute's instructor's manual for the "Fire Call" senior citizen program, "cooking-related fires" kill 500 people each year and cause 8,000 to 12,000 injuries.  On the other hand, "careless smoking" is described as "one of the leading causes" of fire deaths in the United States.  Technically, since it is the leading cause, it does qualify as "one of the leading causes" (11).
 The largesse of the Tobacco Institute has even won praise from some of its staunchest critics.  A former official of a leading fire safety group stated that, "Between you and me, five years ago, I wouldn't even sit in the same room with people from the Tobacco Institute".  This changing attitude was echoed by Tom Nyhan, a captain with the San Francisco Fire Department, who stated that, "Up front, they (the Tobacco Institute) were told you can give us money or grants, but that doesn't stop us from going after you on the fire-safe cigarette."  Although the fire department was close to insulting to the Tobacco Institute, they still were provided with a grant.

Innocent Victims

 The battle for a cigarette which is more fire safe is still not over.  Mierley and Baker (10) have noted that during a three year period, 39 percent of all cigarette associated fire deaths were in innocent victims.  This is a particularly troublesome issue for the population at highest risk, including children, the elderly, disabled people, and infants.  Everybody living next to an apartment or even house with a cigarette smoker can be an innocent victim if a fire is started at night while asleep.  If somebody must smoke, then the least the tobacco industry could do to protect innocent lives would be to produce a slow-burning cigarette that would self-extinguish and hopefully be safer to the large population at risk.


Fire 1. McGuire, A.  Cigarettes and Fire Deaths.  New York State Journal of Medicine, p. 1296-7, 1983.
2. 1981 National Fire Incidence Reporting System (NFIRS) & Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Analysis of National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) Survey Data, Available from FEMA, US Fire Administration.
3. Birky, M.M., Halpin, B.M., Caplan, Y.H. et al.  Fire Fatality Study.  Fire Materials. 1979, 3:211-217.
4 Arthur D. Little, Inc. Report in: Potential Flammability Hazards of Upholstered Furniture - Progress Report on Industry Activities to the Consumer Product Safety Commission.  edited and published by Furniture Flammability Committee, May 9, 1974, pp. 1-6.
4. Spears, A.W.  A Technical Analysis of the Problems Relating to Upholstered Furniture and Matress Fires Relative to Proposed Cigarette Legislation Including a Review of Relevant Patents:  Submitted to the Subcommittee on Health and the Environment of the Committee on Energy and Commerce for its hearing on H.R. 1880, March 21, 1983, pp. 1-66.
5. McCormack, J.A., Damant, G.H.:  Self-Extinguishing Cigarette Study:  Laboratory Reports Nos. 2442-2479 and 2443-2479.  Bureau of Home Furnishings. Department of Consumer Affairs, State of California.  November 13, 1979, pp. 1-3.
6. O'Malley B:  Cigarettes & Sofas.  Mother Jones 1979, 4(6): 54-60, 1979.
7. Letter to Deputy Director, Division of Cancer Cause and Prevention, National Cancer Institute, from John Krasny, Product Flammability Research, Fire Performance Evaluation Division, Center for Fire Research, National Bureau of Standards, U.S. Department of Commerce, May 9, 1980.
8. Kornegay, H.R.  Statement on H.R. 1880 before the Subcommittee on Health and the Environment of the Committee on Energy and Commerce, March 21, 1983, pp. 9-11.
9. The Washington Connection; Fighting Fire with Firemen.  Fortune 1983, 108:52.
10. Mierley, M.C., Baker, S.P.:  Fatal House Fires in an Urban Population.  JAMA 1983, 249:1466-1468.
11. Levin, Myron.  Making a Fire-Safe Cigarette.  Reporter, Vol 10, No. 4, pp. 7-10.