Smoking a Leading Cause of Fire Deaths
MONDAY, Aug. 7 (HealthSCOUT) -- Where there's fire, there's often smoking.
So says a new study which shows that smoking is the single greatest risk factor for deadly fires, linked to about 30 percent of the world's 300,000 annual fire deaths.
The study, by researchers at the University of California at Davis, says smoking-related fires caused roughly $7 billion in damages in the United States, and some $27 billion globally in 1998.
But those figures don't include indirect measures of smoking, the researcher say. Homes of smokers who have small children have the highest risk of fires caused by cigarette lighters -- attractive but deadly playthings in the wrong hands. Children playing with cigarette lights -- a combination of matches and lighters used to ignite cigarettes -- cause 100,000 fires a year in America, and 1 million worldwide, according to the study, which appears in this month's issue of Preventive Medicine.
Dr. Bruce Leistikow, an epidemiologist at the University of California at Davis and lead author of the study, says the work is the first to show the global impact of smoking as a fire hazard. From China and Taiwan to Australia and America, smoking was the chief cause of fire deaths. "The tragedy is really the consistency," Leistikow says.
Less flammable furniture helps
Many of the world's deadliest fires were caused by mishandled tobacco products, including a blaze that killed 180 women workers in Thailand, and New York's infamous Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire of 1911 in which 146 garment makers, many young women, were killed. In both cases, victims jumped to their deaths in a futile attempt to escape the flames.
But it should come as no surprise that smoking is a fire hazard, Leistikow says. Every day, Americans alone smoke roughly seven cigarettes for every man, woman and child over the age of 10 in this country. That's seven cigarette lights a day, every day, every year. "A leading way of reducing fires," he says, "is reducing smoking."
The good news is that smoking-related fires are waning, says John Hall, vice president for fire analysis and research at the National Fire Protection Association, a Quincy, Mass. safety group.
That's largely because the number of smokers in the United States is declining, says Hall, but the trend also reflects earlier changes in mattress and upholstery standards that make bedding and furniture less flammable.
To further reduce the risk of smoking-related fires, Hall's group has advocated more research into fire-safe cigarettes, which have denser tobacco and less porous wrapping that make them less likely to start blazes. "It would have an enormous benefit in terms of lives saved and property damaged," Hall says.
What To Do
An estimated 94 percent of American homes have at least one smoke detector, Hall says. If yours doesn't, get one. A 1997 study found that slightly more than 50 percent of smoking-related deaths occurred in homes without a smoke detector, Hall says.
For more on fire safety, check out the National Fire Protection Association or the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.