Movies – think Lauren Bacall and Humphrey Bogart in “The Big Sleep” – often make cigarette smoking look glamorous. Of course, in reality, the practice is anything but. In addition to being a leading cause of cancer and other diseases, cigarette smoking is the number one cause of home fire deaths.
Seemingly to highlight that fact, the Austin American-Statesman reported Jan. 22, 2008, that a San Marcos, Texas, woman was killed a few days before in an apartment fire thought to have been started by smoking materials. In addition to the fatality, the woman’s apartment and several others within the complex were heavily damaged by the fire, smoke and the effort to put the fire out.
Earlier in January, the Texas State Fire Marshal’s Office (SFMO) reported it is teaming up with the U.S. Fire Administration (USFA), a division of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), on a campaign to reduce smoking deaths and damages. The organizations are launching a nationwide Smoking & Home Fires campaign designed to promote fire safe smoking practices and aimed at smokers and those who live with them.
But legislators in many states are going beyond posters and media campaigns by introducing and passing laws that require cigarette companies to sell only cigarettes that are deemed “fire safe.”
During the 2007 legislative sessions, both Texas and Louisiana passed bills requiring cigarettes sold in those states to be fire standards compliant, and a lawmaker in Oklahoma has filed a similar bill in advance of this year’s legislative session.
Beginning in January 2009, cigarettes sold in Texas must be made from fire safe materials that automatically extinguish when left unattended. A similar Louisiana law goes into effect at the end of August 2009.
In Oklahoma, State Rep. Joe Dorman recently filed a measure that would make Oklahoma the 31st state to require cigarettes sold within the state to be fire safe.
Dorman, D-Rush Springs, noted in announcing his bill that 700 to 900 people per year are killed in residential fires started by burning cigarettes. Dorman added that “it is not just the smokers who are dying; it is the smoker’s children and spouses who are killed in these fires as well. Cigarettes are not only unhealthy, but they are also highly dangerous to everyone who encounters them.”
“Cigarette-ignited fires are the leading cause of residential fire death,” James M. Shannon, president of the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), said upon the signing of the Texas bill by Gov. Rick Perry in July 2007. The Texas measure, H.B. 2935, was sponsored by state Rep. Phil King, R-Weatherford, and state Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas, and supported by fire fighters and other first responder organizations.
There were 82,400 smoking material structure fires in the United States in 2005, according to the NFPA. Smoking material fires killed 800 people and injured 1,660 others in 2005. Ninety-three percent of the deaths and 78 percent of the injuries were in home fires. Property losses from smoking material fires total hundreds of millions of dollars each year.
Direct property loss due to fires in the U.S., regardless of the cause, was estimated at $11.3 billion for 2006. That year, 3,245 civilians lost their lives as the result of fire, according to the NFPA.
In 2006 there were a total of 524,000 structure fires in the U.S, 412,500 of those were residential fires. The ISO’s Property Claim Services estimates that fire losses associated with homeowners insurance claims (including FAIR Plans) accounted for 43 percent of total fire losses in 2006.
Shannon, who also coordinates the Coalition for Fire-Safe Cigarettes, said his group is continuing to ask tobacco companies to voluntarily switch to fire safe cigarettes without waiting for states to legislate the requirement. While the tobacco industry traditionally has opposed legislative mandates, one major cigarette manufacturer, R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company, announced in late October 2007 that it expects to be manufacturing all of its cigarette brands with fire safe paper by the end of 2009.
The state of New York has required fire safe cigarettes – made with a banded paper designed to slow down the burning and extinguish a cigarette when it is left unattended or is not being actively smoked – since June 2004. Since that time 21 more states have enacted the same standard and eight states have legislation pending. Canada has mandated fire safe cigarettes nationwide and the NFPA reports that the consumer chief of the European Union is advocating an EU-wide fire safe cigarette mandate.
Lorraine Carli with the NFPA told Insurance Journal that New York has experienced a decrease in cigarette related fires, as well as a decrease in deaths associated with cigarettes, since its law was passed. The state reported 2,618 smoking material related fires in 2003. That number fell to 2,035 in 2005, Carli said.
The NFPA says improvements in the construction of fire resistant buildings have reduced the incidence of structure fires, but increased construction and property values have kept property losses high. The association reports that fire departments respond to a fire every 19 seconds in the U.S.; a structure fire occurs every 60 seconds and a residential fire occurs every 76 seconds.
Editor’s Note: The full version of this story appears in the January 28, 2008, edition of Insurance Journal – South Central.
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