Cigarettes and Fire Safety

This archived article is from October 2002. Although every effort has been made to make sure the information presented is accurate, please note that it may contain information that is out-of-date.

Smoking is not only bad for your health. It's also a fire hazard. Fires started by cigarettes cause one out of every five fire fatalities, and careless smoking remains a leading cause of home fire deaths in Canada. In 2000, smoker's material caused 3,929 fires with losses of $56.7 million.

The good news is that fewer Canadians are dying in smoking-related fires. Recently released statistics show over a 30% drop in fire fatalities due to smoker's material over five years - from 100 in 1996 down to 67 in 2000.

Why are smoking-related fire deaths down?

Most fires related to smoking occur in the home. The Canada Safety Council attributes the decrease to the widespread use of smoke alarms, fire-retardant furnishings, fire codes and public education about fire safety.

Almost all Canadian homes have at least one smoke alarm — 95%, according to a 1998 Canada Safety Council survey. Smoke alarms detect smoke in the early stages of a fire and sound an alarm, allowing time to escape. Careless smoking may lead to fires which can burn for hours before bursting into flame. The increased availability of photoelectric type smoke alarms, designed to detect smouldering fires may be a further factor in reducing the number of smoking-related fire deaths.

Since 1985, bedding and upholstery sold in Canada must meet requirements for fire resistance. In fact, the test method for flame spread in mattresses involves the use of a burning cigarette. The requirements have more effect year by year, as older furnishings are replaced with sofas, easy chairs and mattresses that cannot be easily ignited by a cigarette.

Are fire-safe cigarettes possible?

A fire-safe cigarette would offer an antidote to irresponsible behaviour — falling asleep with a lit cigarette, discarding it carelessly or leaving it unattended. Such a cigarette would be engineered with reduced propensity to start a fire when dropped or left unattended. It might be designed to extinguish itself within minutes if a puff is not taken, or not to develop enough heat to ignite a flammable surface even if it falls and burns to ashes.

Critics allege manufacturers have known how to make fire-safe cigarettes for at least 20 years. Characteristics that make cigarettes less fire-prone include: lower paper porosity; smaller circumference; shorter filter; reducing or eliminating paper burn additives; and lower tobacco density.

The technology to produce fire-safe cigarettes has been available for over a decade, but the industry, by and large, does not appear to want it. Cigarette companies say smokers will not buy a product that goes out very quickly after a puff. They may also be concerned about product liability suits. For example, in 2000, a Toronto couple whose three-year-old daughter had died in a fire blamed on a smouldering cigarette filed a law suit against Canada's three major tobacco companies. They claimed that the companies knew how to make a fire-safe cigarette and failed to do so.

Mass-produced commercial cigarettes that self-extinguish are already on the market. The Merit brand from Philip Morris uses "speed bumps" in the cigarette's paper which make it go out within minutes if a puff is not taken.

Governments Slow to Act

The idea of regulating a product standard for fire-safe cigarettes is not new. Our neighbour to the south - whose history is rooted in tobacco — has actively addressed ignition propensity of cigarettes over the years.

The American Congress first raised the issue in 1929. Research was conducted by the US National Bureau of Standards at that time. In 1974, after a long hiatus, legislation mandating fire-safe cigarettes passed the Senate. However, the legislation failed in the House of Representatives. Progress stalled again until a Technical Study Group released a report to Congress in 1987 affirming that it is technically and economically feasible to make a fire-safe cigarette. By 1993 a test method was developed as a means to implement a fire safety standard for cigarettes.

A Fire Safe Cigarette Act was introduced in 1999. It required the establishment of a cigarette safety standard and directed the Consumer Product Safety Commission to implement this standard within 18 months of the date of enactment. That Act did not pass, but was re-introduced as the Fire Safe Cigarette Act of 2002.

In the meantime, in 2000, New York passed the first state law requiring fire-safe cigarettes, to take effect by July 1, 2003 unless federal legislation is enacted which supersedes it. Massachusetts and several other states are considering similar laws.

A 1995 coroner's inquest in Toronto recommended the federal government mandate fire-safe cigarettes, referring to the US studies. However, only very recently has Canada's federal government taken action to look at a possible fire safety standard for cigarettes, despite requests from the Canada Safety Council and other health and safety groups. In November 2001, a sub-committee of the Health Minister's Advisory Council on Tobacco Control decided to make fire-safe cigarettes a priority.

Fire Losses in Canada, Council of Canadian Fire Marshals and Fire Commissioners: Annual Report 1996 and Annual Report 2000