Fatal fires from discarded cigarettes declining

Posted April 28, 2010, at 9:33 p.m.

BANGOR, Maine — The number of fatal fires in Maine started by lit cigarettes is on the decline, but it’s too soon to say for sure if the drop is due to a 2-year-old law requiring all cigarettes meet a new fire-safety standard, a state fire analyst said this week.

The law, which took effect on Jan. 1, 2008, requires that all cigarettes sold in Maine be made with a slow-burning paper that causes them to self-extinguish if they’re not being smoked.

“For me to get a good handle on a trend I like to see at minimum five years worth of data,” said Richard Taylor, senior research and planning analyst for the Office of the State Fire Marshal. “I, myself, would rather see 10 years.”

Taylor suspects other variables might be coming into play, including a likely drop in smoking because of increasing costs for cigarettes and anti-smoking education efforts and campaigns.

Still, Taylor said, the number of deaths caused by lit cigarettes since the beginning of 2008 “appears to be trending down.”

According to data provided by Taylor, fires sparked by lit cigarettes resulted in 40 deaths from 1998 through 2007, which works out to an average of four a year.

In the two full years since the law took effect, the state has had three deaths blamed on the improper disposal of lit cigarettes, one in 2008 and two in 2009, which works out to an average of 1.5 deaths a year.

Though 2008 also saw two additional deaths connected to smoking, those involved people who were smoking while using oxygen tanks, so the fatalities are not attributed to improperly discarded smoking material.

So far this year, there have been none, Taylor said.

“Hopefully, it’ll stay that way,” he said.

Assistant State Fire Marshal Joseph Thomas agreed.

“We’re optimistic,” Thomas said Wednesday. “I honestly think they’re going to make a difference when it comes to smoking-related fires.“Obviously, we’re not that far into this, but we’re hoping for the best,” Thomas said. “It could be a hiccup, but anecdotally there seem to be less [fire deaths caused by cigarettes] than what we’ve been seeing.”

Thomas said that one factor that makes fires caused by cigarettes especially deadly is that they often are slow and smoldering, which causes significant buildup of smoke that can incapacitate those nearby.

Another factor is that fires caused by cigarettes often occur in close proximity to the smoker, such as on a couch or in a bed.

“That makes it even more difficult to escape. There’s a much smaller window of time,” he said.

Thomas said that one area in which fire-safe cigarettes might be less helpful is fire deaths that occur when smokers are using oxygen tanks.

Those fires “are compounded by the fact that oxygen intensifies any kind of combustion,” he said. “When somebody is on oxygen like that, their hair and clothing become enriched with oxygen.

“We’d typically tell them to quit but for some people, the reason that they are on oxygen to begin with is because they smoke. The reality is that they are the hard-core smokers and the reality is they probably are not going to quit.”

In such cases, he said, “We tell them that there are safer ways to do it. I’d rather see us save them by having them [smoke] as safely as they can.”

People who insist on smoking while connected to oxygen tanks should disconnect from the oxygen source for at least 10 minutes to aerate themselves, he said. They then should wait 10 minutes before they light up and do their smoking outdoors.

Number of Maine fire fatalities caused by improperly discarded smoking materials by year:

1998 — 4

1999 — 4

2000 — 9

2001 — 4

2002 — 3

2003 — 6

2004 — 5

2005 — 1

2006 — 3

2007 — 1

2008 — 1*

2009 — 2

*Two additional smoking-related deaths for 2008 involved people who were smoking while using oxygen when the fire began

Source: Office of the State Fire Marshal

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