Study Shows Smoking Is a Leading Cause of Fire Disaster and Death Worldwide

August 10, 2000

New York (MedscapeWire) Aug 10 -- Based on a worldwide study of smoking-related fire and disaster data, epidemiologists from the University of California at Davis show smoking is a leading cause of fires and death from fires globally, resulting in an estimated cost of nearly $7 billion in the United States and $27.2 billion worldwide in 1998. The study is published in the August issue of Preventive Medicine.

Fires cause 1% of the global burden of disease and 300,000 deaths per year worldwide. Fire disasters destroy cities, families, workplaces, workers, and wildlands and have an enormous impact on human health, the environment, and society. Smoking causes an estimated 30% of fire deaths in the United States and 10% of fire deaths worldwide. Each year, more than 1 billion smokers throughout the world light over 6 trillion cigarettes, creating a potential source of ignition from cigarette butts and from cigarette lighters and matches that fall into the hands of young children.

In France, a single lighted cigarette thrown from a moving car in 1999 ignited a fire in the Mont Blanc Tunnel, a major thoroughfare between France and Italy, causing 39 deaths and more than $1 billion in losses to the region. The Oakland Hills fire in California, in which a lit cigarette remains a suspected cause, left 10,000 people homeless, destroyed nearly 4000 dwellings, and cost more than $1.5 billion. And in Texas City, Texas, the Federal Bureau of Investigation blamed a cigarette for probably igniting an ammonium nitrate explosion in 1947, causing the worst industrial disaster death toll in US history. The explosion caused nearly 600 deaths, 380 hospitalizations longer than 2 months, 4100 casualties, and damage to more than 90% of the city's buildings at a cost of more than $4 billion.

"Other studies have estimated the total cost of fires at about 1 percent of the gross domestic product of the United Kingdom, Japan, and virtually all of the 14 other countries with available statistics," says Bruce Leistikow, a physician and assistant professor of epidemiology and preventive medicine at the UC Davis School of Medicine and Medical Center. "Yet no one has estimated the impact of smoking on global fire costs, cigarette lighter and match fires, fire-fighting costs, or fire/explosion disasters."

"For example, US estimates of fire costs from smoking have not included any of the $90 billion to $140 billion a year spent on fire protection efforts, such as fire fighting services and fireproofing measures, or the variety of costs related to accidental fires created by children playing with cigarette lighters or matches. Yet researchers recognize that the homes of smokers with small children are those at greatest risk for cigarette lighter fires. Our study addresses these important factors in US and global cost estimates of smoking-related fires to provide a more complete accounting of smoking's enormous impact."

To estimate the total cost of fires from smoking, the epidemiologists analyzed reports of smoking-related fires and fire disasters throughout much of the world to tabulate and summarize total fire number, injury, death, and property loss data. They compared these tolls to US fire, burn, and fire death rates per billion cigarettes extrapolated globally. To estimate the cost of smoking-attributable lighter or match fires accidentally started by children younger than 10 years, the researchers assessed the smoking-attributable percentage of all cigarette lighters and matches used.

Some 2 million fires occur each year in the United States alone. These fires result in about 5000 deaths, 54,000 hospitalizations, and 1.4 million injuries. The overall cost of fire in the United States, which has been estimated at up to $200 billion a year, represents 1% to 2% of the US gross domestic product. Of these US fires, children younger than 10 years with access to cigarette lighters and matches cause about 100,000 fires, 300 to 400 child deaths, and 11% of all injuries in reported fires each year. Globally, cigarette lights cause an estimated 1 million fires started by children.

"Stopping smoking can significantly reduce the devastation, injury and cost caused by fire," says Leistikow. "Two-thirds of all US reductions in fire fatalities related to smoking from 1984 to 1995 were attributed to reductions in cigarette consumption. Reducing smoking would lower its huge impact on fire injury, fire control costs, and the 4 million deaths each year that occur from non-fire-related smoking disease. Policymakers, smokers, families, and the public should have the opportunity to consider measures to reduce their burdens from smoking, including smoking-caused fires and the resulting burns, death, disasters and costs."

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