by John R. Hall, Jr.
During the 1980s, smoking materials caused more than 200,000 fires per
year, and resulted in more than 1,000 civilian deaths, more than 3,000 civilian
injuries, and more than $300 million in direct property damage per year.
All that when "smoking materials" refer only to lighted tobacco
products, not matches or lighters. In 1990, fires caused by smoking materials
dropped to less than 200,000. They declined steadily each year from 1990
to 1993 but increased slightly in 1994 and 1995.
In 1995, there were 153,400 smoking-material fires-a 1 percent increase
from 1994. These fires resulted in 1,122 civilian deaths, 2,667 civilian
injuries, and $507 million in direct property damage (see Table 1). Civilian
deaths in smoking-material fires increased 22 percent in 1995, while civilian
injuries decreased by 11 percent. Direct property damage in smoking-material
fires also increased by 22 percent before adjusting for inflation.
Table 1. The 1995 U.S. Smoking-Material Fire Problem
||Direct Property Damage|
||$315 million (62.2%)|
||$168 million (33.2%) |
||$19 million (3.8%) |
|Outdoor and other
||$4 million (0.8%) |
||$507 million (100.0%)|
|Source: NFIRS, NFPA Survey. Numbers of fires are expressed
to the nearest hundred, civilian deaths and injuries to the nearest one,
and direct property damage to the nearest million dollars. Totals may not
equal sums due to rounding error.|
Obviously, the civilian death toll is the most important aspect of the
smoking-material fire problem because more civilians die in fires caused
by smoking materials than in any other type of fire in the United States.
The 1,068 civilian deaths in smoking-material residential fires represented
29 percent of the 3,695 civilian deaths in residential structure fires in
In 1995, "outdoor and other" fires accounted for 72 percent
of fires started by smoking materials, vehicles accounted for roughly 5
percent, and structures for 23 percent. Although outside and other fires
caused by smoking materials far outnumber the structure fires they cause,
the highest number of deaths and injuries and the largest dollar losses
occur in structures, and, more specifically, in residential structures.
According to statistics gathered from 1991 through 1995, out of 12 major
causes of structure fires, smoking materials ranked first for civilian fire
deaths and fourth for civilian fire injuries. Despite the high number of
casualties, smoking materials ranked only eighth for number of structure
fires and ninth for direct property damage. Cooking equipment; incendiary
and suspicious causes; heating equipment; other equipment; electrical distribution
equipment; appliances, tools, or air-conditioning equipment; and open flame
all ranked ahead of smoking materials in number of structure fires. All
of these causes of fires also resulted in more property damage, as did exposure
to another hostile fire.
It will probably come as no surprise that most of the civilian deaths
and injuries in smoking-material fires occur in residential structures.
In 1995, in fact, 95 percent of all smoking-material fire deaths occurred
in residential structures.
Although total smoking-material fires increased by 1 percent in 1995,
residential smoking-material structure fires experienced a 4 percent drop,
while nonresidential fires decreased by 11 percent. Direct property damage
in smoking-material structure fires increased 19 percent after adjustment
The most important part of the smoking-material fire problem-the number
of structure fires-has declined by two-thirds, or 66 percent, since 1980,
while the number of civilian deaths has dropped by 49 percent from the high
in 1981 and 44 percent since tracking began in 1980. However, deaths per
100 smoking-material fires were 66 percent higher in 1995 than they were
The average severity of smoking-related structure fires in terms of civilian
injuries also increased from 1980 to 1995, up 45 percent from 4.85 per 100
structure fires to 7.05. And the average severity of structure fires in
terms of direct property damage increased 69 percent-after adjustment for
inflation-from $4,600 per structure fire in 1980 to $7,700 in 1995.
Nearly all smoking-material structure fires involved cigarettes (see
Table 2). Very few fires-just 1 to 2 percent-and a very small percentage
of associated losses-also 1 to 2 percent-were estimated to have been caused
by some sort of smoking material definitely identified as something other
than a cigarette.
Table 2. Smoking-Material Fires in Structures, by Type of Smoking Material,
||Direct Property Damage|
||$262 million (83.2%)|
||$4 million (1.2%)|
||$1 million (0.3%)|
||$48 million (15.3%)|
||$315 million (100.0%)|
||Direct Property Damage|
||$157 million (93.2%)|
||$0 million (0.1%)|
||$0 million (0.2%)|
||$11 million (6.5%)|
||$168 million (100.0%)|
|Source: NFIRS, NFPA Survey. Numbers of fires are expressed
to the nearest hundred, civilian deaths and injuries to the nearest one,
and direct property damage to the nearest million dollars. Totals may not
equal sums due to rounding.|
Abandoning or carelessly discarding smoking materials was by far the
leading cause of fires in both residential and nonresidential structures
(see Table 3). In residential structures, falling asleep while smoking is
the only other action that resulted in a sizable share of fires or associated
losses. Incendiary and suspicious causes played a relatively greater role
in nonresidential structures, accounting for 11 percent of fires and property
losses and 14 percent of civilian injuries.
Table 3. Causes of Smoking-Material Structure Fires in the United States,
||Direct Property Damage |
|Abandoning or carelessly discarding|
|Incendiary or suspicious causes|
|Unclassified or unknown misuse of smoking material|
|Unclassified or unknown misuse of ignited material|
|Becoming unconscious due to drugs or alcohol, or mishandling due to mental
or physical impairment|
|Unclassified ignition factor|
|Source: NFIRS, NFPA Survey.|
* Not zero but rounds to zero. Numbers of fires are expressed to the nearest
hundred, civilian deaths and injuries to the nearest one, and direct property
damage to the nearest hundred thousand dollars.
Totals may not equal sums due to rounding.
Smoking materials aren't the leading heat source of choice for either
arsonists or children playing with fire. In fact, separate analyses show
that only 2 to 3 percent of all incendiary or suspicious residential fires
involved smoking materials as the heat source, and only 2 to 3 percent of
all child-playing residential fires involved smoking materials.
Only 1 percent of smoking-material fires and 6 percent of associated
civilian deaths in residential structures occur in fires attributable to
drug or alcohol impairment or some other physical or mental impairment.
However, these small percentages almost surely understate the frequency
of drugs and alcohol as complicating factors. In fact, 18 percent of all
civilian deaths in smoking fires were estimated to have involved victims
impaired by drugs or alcohol.
Outdoor and vehicle fires
Outdoor or other fires, which include trash, grass, and brush fires,
accounted for the largest share of smoking-material fires but for very little
of the associated loss. Since 1980, "other" smoking-related fires
have decreased 50 percent. The 16-year trend shows that these fires declined
from 1980 through 1983, increased in 1984 and 1985, declined again from
1986 through 1993, and increased slightly in 1994 and 1995.
Though these fires resulted in what seems to be insubstantial death and
dollar losses, they're potentially very damaging. One very serious fire,
the 1989 Black Tiger Fire in Colorado,1 is suspected of having been caused
by a carelessly discarded cigarette. This fire destroyed 2,100 acres of
land and 44 homes and other structures, resulting in $10 million in property
damage. Luckily, no one was killed.
In a 1992 fire in California, a carelessly discarded cigarette caused
a forest fire that resulted in more than $10.9 million in property damage.
The fire consumed 3,460 acres of valuable timber, and suppression efforts
cost approximately $1.6 million. Two firefighters were injured. Again, no
one was killed, though the potential for life loss was great. A year later,
hunters carelessly discarded a cigarette that started the Marre Wildland
Fire in Los Padres National Forest in California. News accounts stated that
as many as 3,200 firefighters were fighting the blaze at one time, and suppression
costs were estimated at $21 million.
In 1995, 5 percent of smoking-material fires and smaller shares of associated
losses occurred in vehicles. Vehicle fires due to smoking materials rose
sharply in 1995 but have decreased 68 percent overall since 1980.
What do smoking materials ignite?
Mattresses and bedding, upholstered furniture, and trash were the items
most often ignited by smoking materials in structure fires. While trash
fires in structures caused relatively few injuries and fewer deaths, trash
was a factor in nonresidential structure fires and in the property damage
incurred in those fires. In 1995, residential smoking-material fires involving
mattresses and bedding decreased by 13 percent, while those involving trash
dropped by 4 percent and those involving upholstered furniture decreased
by 3 percent. In nonresidential structures, smoking-material fires involving
mattresses and bedding declined by 7 percent, but those involving upholstered
furniture or trash declined by 18 and 17 percent, respectively.
Two of the three leading items first ignited, mattresses and upholstered
furniture, have been the subjects of large-scale, national efforts to reduce
their susceptibility to ignition. The fires in which they're involved have
declined by about three-fourths since 1980, but those involving trash have
declined by nearly two-thirds. A mandatory U.S. Standard for the Flammability
of Mattresses (and Mattress Pads), Title 16 CFR 1632, was enacted in 1973,
and a voluntary standard for upholstered furniture, the so-called "Upholstered
Furniture Action Council (UFAC) Standard," was introduced in the late
1970s. At the time, the UFAC standard was judged substantial enough to remove
the need for a mandatory action. Currently, however, the U.S. Consumer Product
Safety Commission (CPSC) is reviewing a proposal to set and enforce federal
upholstered furniture flammability standards, particularly in respect to
small open-flame ignitions.
There's no obvious reason why fires involving items that haven't received
direct attention, such as trash, are declining, even though trash fires
haven't been declining as rapidly in the last few years as they did before.
It's also virtually impossible to measure directly the impact of the furniture
and mattress standards on the fire experience because it's not known what
percentage of the population owns furniture and bedding made after the standards
The success of these two standards has been measured by studies of shifts
in production toward less-ignitable materials.(2) Composite indices of the
susceptibility to smoking-material ignitions for upholstered furniture and
mattresses in use declined 18.4 percent and 36.1 percent, respectively,
from 1980 to 1984, compared to declines of 37.8 percent and 35.1 percent,
respectively, in the number of residential structure fires that began with
ignition of these two types of items per billion cigarettes consumed. This
means that the ignitability indices match the decline in mattress fire rates
quite well and the decline in upholstered furniture fire rates less well.
Forecasting civilian deaths
Forecasts based on these patterns show that, although continued decreases
in fires per billion cigarettes consumed were expected, these would be largely
balanced by expected increases in civilian deaths per thousand fires involving
smoking materials. This meant that civilian fire deaths due to smoking-material
ignitions were forecast to be primarily a function of changes in cigarette
consumption, because the rate of change in civilian deaths per billion cigarettes
consumed was forecast to be less than 1 percent per year, based on 1980
to 1984 data.
These forecasts can now be checked against 11 years of actual fire experience.
Combining these 11 years, the 1984 to 1995 net decline in cigarette consumption
was 19 percent. The predicted net decline in civilian deaths from 1984 to
1995 would be 30 percent, a 19 percent decline plus 11 years of additional
1-percent-a-year drops due to projected declines in deaths per billion cigarettes
consumed. And there actually was a 30 percent decrease from 1984 to 1995.
In 1988, fire deaths were well above the forecast. In 1991, they were
well below the forecast; and since 1988, except for 1991 and 1995, they've
been consistently below the forecast by a slowly growing margin. Overall,
the forecast has been a somewhat accurate guide to actual fire experience,
although it's often predicted a smoother and less dramatic decline than
actual fire experience has shown. In 1995, forecast and reality matched
Of course, it's too soon to conclude that reductions in cigarette consumption
are enough to produce continued declines in fire deaths. Other major changes-altering
careless smoking behavior and creating smoking materials that are less likely
to ignite other items-may be key elements in reducing the largest part of
the civilian fire death problem.
Patterns for victims of smoking-material fires
From 1991 to 1995, children age 6 to 18 had the lowest fire death risks
in residential structure fires started by smoking materials, while children
age 5 and under had rates similar to adults age 30 to 45. Past childhood,
death rates rose with age, and people 80 and older had the highest rates.
Nevertheless, 11 percent of civilian deaths and 12 percent of civilian
injuries in residential smoking-material fires are suffered by children.
This reflects those children who smoke, but even more, it reflects children
living in households with adults who smoke. The principal risk, however,
is to adults, and the risk of dying in a smoking-material fire rises steadily
from age 18. In the over-80 age group, the risk of death due to a smoking-material
fire is more than six times the risk for adults ages 19 to 29.
The high risk of death for older adult smokers may be even higher, because
the percentage of people over age 65 who currently smoke is less than half
of the percentage for 18- to 64-year-olds (see Table 4). While one can't
assume that all victims of smoking-material fires are themselves smokers,
this large disparity in the likelihood of being a smoker, running counter
to the risk of dying in a smoking-material fire, suggests that the risk
of death for older smokers may be much higher than indicated.
Table 4. Percent of Population Smoking
|12 to 17
|18 to 25
|26 or older
|26 to 34
|35 or older
|B. Detailed Patterns 1993|
|18 to 24
|25 to 34
|35 to 44
|45 to 64
|65 and older
|All age groups over 18
Sources: For patterns by sex 1970-1987, U.S. Centers
for Disease Control, Office of Smoking and Health, Reducing the Health Consequences
of Smoking, 1989. For patterns by age 1974-1993, U.S. National Institute
on Drug Abuse, National Household Survey on Drug Abuse; 1993. For 19911993
patterns by age and sex, U.S. National Institute on Drug Abuse, National
Household Survey on Drug Abuse; 1993. For 19911994 patterns, Statistical
Abstract of the United States, 19941996.
*1970 and 1980 populations included 17 years old and older,
1983 population included 18 years old and older, and 1985 and 1987 populations
included 20 years old and older, and 1991 and 1992 included 18 years old
Source: Statistical Abstract of the United States, 1996, U.S. Department
of Commerce, Bureau of the Census.
Table 4 also indicates that the current difference between the percentages
of men and women who smoke is about 5 percentage points. This is relatively
small, particularly compared to 1980, when the difference was more than
9 percentage points. However, men had a death and injury rate between one
and a half and two times the rate for women for smoking-material residential
structure fires between 1991 and 1995. Even allowing for the fact that not
all victims of smoking-material fires are themselves the smokers who caused
the fire, it appears that male smokers have a risk of death and injury due
to smoking material fires that's between one and a half and two times the
risk for female smokers.
Smoking-related fire death rates are similar for male and female victims
in most age groups under the age of 19, possibly because children typically
don't smoke and may be equally exposed to risk from fires started by adult
smokers. The death rate for male victims is roughly two to three times that
of female victims for every age group over 18, except for adults age 70
to 79. The same is true for injuries, although the ratio varies more than
it does for deaths.
A majority, or 57 percent, of those who die in residential smoking-material
fires are in the same room as the fire. This is much higher than the percentage
of those who die in all types of residential fires who are in the same room
as the fire, which is 45 percent.
Most victims of residential smoking-material fires were either asleep
or slowed by drug or alcohol impairment, handicap, or age before the fire.
Those who died in smoking-material fires were more likely than those who
died in residential fires in general to be coded as impaired by drugs or
alcohol-18 percent versus 10 percent-although all such assessments may be
significantly understated. Fire officials find it difficult to assess victims'
prefire conditions, particularly in the absence of autopsy results, which
are rarely available. And fire officials have no place to code multiple
conditions, such as "intoxicated and asleep." One landmark study
found that 35 percent of all fire fatalities and 51 percent of fatal fire
victims age 20 or older in a sample from Maryland had blood alcohol levels
at or above 0.1 percent. (3) A more recent study conducted at the University
of North Carolina at Chapel Hill found that 40 percent of fatal fires in
rural areas of North Carolina involved someone impaired by drugs or alcohol.
Half of all deaths and one-third of injuries in smoking-material fires
in residential structures occurred in homes that had no automatic detection
systems. In 50 percent of the deaths and 37 percent of the injuries, the
victims had no warning because there were no smoke detectors.
The addition of working smoke detectors could have a considerable impact
on the number of civilian deaths in residential smoking-material fires.
Smoke detectors may not help reduce the number of deaths in fires in which
the victims are intimately involved in ignition, but they might give the
other 69 percent of victims the precious few minutes they need to escape.
Patterns by day of week and time of day
Based on the figures from 1991 to 1995, residential structure fires due
to everything but smoking occur in slightly higher percentages on weekends
than on weekdays. Smoking-material fires in residential structures are even
more likely to occur on weekends than residential fires due to all other
causes. More than one-third of civilian deaths and injuries sustained during
residential smoking-material fires happened on Saturday and Sunday.
There's also a strong time pattern for residential smoking-material fires
and the losses they cause: They're more likely to occur between midnight
and 6:00 a.m. than fires caused by anything else. These late-night and early-morning
deaths aren't due solely to falling asleep while smoking. Cigarettes discarded
or dropped in the evening can smolder for hours before igniting combustible
materials while people sleep in other rooms.
What's being done?
Smoking material fires are a major cause of concern because they result
in more deaths than any other type of fire. In 1995, the number of civilian
deaths rose sharply from the previous year and easily accounted for the
largest share of residential fire deaths. Realistically, any efforts to
reduce fire deaths in this country must address the smoking-material fire
In the '70s and early '80s, efforts to reduce smoking-material fires
focused on modifying the items most frequently ignited by smoking-materials-mattresses
and upholstered furniture. These new products were designed using materials
more resistant to cigarette ignitions, and since those initiatives, there
have been major reductions in the number of fires involving upholstered
furniture and mattresses. However, we've also seen a drop in all other smoking-material
fires, and the reasons for this are unclear. What's clear is that this initiative
alone isn't enough to ensure continued decreases in smoking-material fires
and fire deaths. And although these products are more resistant to ignition
by smoking materials, some may actually burn faster or more intensely or
produce more toxic smoke once ignited.
In the '80s, attention shifted from products ignited by smoking materials
to the materials themselves. Early efforts resulted in the Cigarette Safety
Act of 1984, which established the Technical Study Group (TSG) on Cigarette
and Little Cigar Fire Safety to conduct studies on the feasibility of developing
cigarettes and little cigars that would be less likely to start fires. In
1987, the TSG reported that it was technically feasible to develop a cigarette
that was less likely to ignite other items.
As a result of continuing efforts in this area, the Fire Safe Cigarette
Act of 1990 was passed in August of that year. This legislation required
the Center for Fire Research at the National Institute of Standards and
Technology (NIST), under the direction of the CPSC, to carry out three tasks.
The first was to "develop a standard test method to determine cigarette
ignition propensity." The second entailed compiling "performance
data for cigarettes using the standard test method developed." And
the third was to "conduct laboratory studies on, and computer modeling
of, ignition physics to develop valid, user-friendly predictive capabilities."
In addition, the CPSC was responsible for designing and implementing
a study "to collect baseline and follow-up data about the characteristics
of cigarettes, products ignited, and smokers involved in fires and develop
information on societal costs of cigarette-ignited fires." Working
with the Secretary of Health and Human Services, CPSC was also asked "to
develop information on changes in the toxicity of smoke and resultant health
effects from cigarette prototypes."
NFPA worked with eight fire departments nationwide collecting data on
cigarette fires for this project, which is now complete. The results of
these data proved consistent with the findings of the lab tests performed
by NIST. Both showed that ignition propensity is related to the physical
characteristics of cigarettes.
A final report on these activities was presented to Congress in August
1993. In February 1994, Congressman Joseph Moakley (D-Massachusetts) sponsored
a bill that would require the CPSC to issue a safety standard for cigarettes
in accordance with the findings of the final report and in consultation
with NIST. Several large-city fire chiefs rallied around Moakley in support
of this legislation, but the bill didn't pass.
In the past few years, it's seemed that an out-and-out war has been declared
on cigarette smoking. Whole towns have banned smoking in public buildings,
and some have even made it a crime for minors to possess cigarettes. A major
radio and television public education campaign has been introduced to try
to reduce cigarette smoking across the United States. These actions will
ultimately have a positive impact on the future smoking-material fire experience.
But is it enough? Public education is also needed to address the risks of
smoking and fires and to make everyone, not just smokers themselves, aware
of the danger of smoking-material fires.
The overall downward trend in smoking-material fires and fire deaths
gives reason for hope, but we must continue to look for new approaches to
ensure continued declines. Strategies that call for protection systems that
can enhance safety after a fire has begun, such as smoke detectors or home
sprinklers, have potential, particularly since smoking-material fires often
smolder for a significant period before the first flame, and such fires
afford more time for early detection.
But the potential of post-ignition strategies is limited by the unusually
high percentage of smoking-material fire deaths involving drug or alcohol
impairment, age, and physical or mental disabilities. In addition, a significant
number of smoking-material fire deaths involve victims in the room of fire
origin, and those who are close to the fire or unable to respond effectively
are difficult to save using strategies that operate after the fire has begun.
Smoking-material fires continue to be among the most difficult U.S. fire
problems to address. Thus far, no single attempt has proven to be the solution.
The ignitability and burning properties of those items most frequently ignited
must be reexamined so that we can determine whether other opportunities
exist. We must also reconsider public education possibilities and analyze
fire protection systems as options. Smokers who can't or won't quit can
be taught self-protective behaviors, such as using sturdy, large ashtrays
and not smoking in bed. And when appropriate, efforts on the legislative
front should be pursued.
1. Black Tiger Fire Case Study, prepared by NFPA,
sponsored by the National Wildland/Urban Interface Fire Protection Initiative.
Copies are available from NFPA's Fire Investigations Department.
2. See, for example, John R. Hall, Jr., Final Report:
Expected Changes in Fire Damages from Reducing Cigarette Ignition Propensity,
Prepared for the Technical Study Group of the Cigarette Safety Act of 1984,
Quincy, Mass.: NFPA, July 16, 1987.
3. Walter G. Berl and Byron M. Halpin, Human Fatalities
from Unwanted Fires, Laurel, Md.: John Hopkins University Applied Physics
Laboratory, December 1978, Table VIII.
4. Carol W. Runyan, et al., "Risk Factors for
Fatal Residential Fires," The New England Journal of Medicine,
September 17, 1992 (Volume 327, Number 12), p. 859.
How to get this report
To get a copy of the complete smoking-material fire report or any other
NFPA report, call Nancy Schwartz at the One Stop Data Shop at (617) 984-7450.
Reprinted from NFPA Journal, January/February 1998,
p 56-62. Reprinted by permission of NFPA Journal.
Please contact the NFPA Library (617) 984-7445 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org
for more information.