October 15, 2013
By Audrey Fraizer
On the day most families were packing picnics or visiting cemeteries to lay flowers in remembrance of military veterans, the Kearneys of Boston, Mass., would instead gather garden sheers, clippers, and elbow grease to clean gravesites bearing the remains of a daughter, her husband, and their three children.
Tending the graves was a tradition the Kearneys observed in memory of the young family killed in a fire caused by a smoldering cigarette accidentally dropped between couch cushions in the wee hours of the Memorial Day weekend in 1990. One family member, a sister of the woman killed, escaped by jumping out of a second-story window.
Shortly after the deadly fire, a team of lawyers approached the surviving family members—a mother and her remaining four children (three brothers and the sister who jumped). While sympathetic to their terrible loss, these lawyers were not there to give condolences. They were not ambulance chasers. With the surviving Kearneys, attorneys had found the perfect case to push the manufacture of “fire-safe cigarettes” and state laws forbidding the sale of cigarettes that keep burning after a long break from puffing.1
The Kearneys weren’t about becoming celebrities or the money they could gain from a successful lawsuit against deep-pocketed big tobacco.
It was more about the opportunity to save others from a similar tragedy, and an opportunity that had the Kearney family repeating the same message for untold years before the Massachusetts Legislature.
“My children, my grandchildren, didn’t smoke. And to see three little white coffins and two others laid out in front of you . . . I would hope this would never have to happen to anyone ever again,” Mary Kearney repeated over and over again.
The young family could have had such great lives, just like the other 1,000 people killed each year in fires caused by lit cigarettes.
Cigarettes are the leading cause of fire-related deaths in the United States. Approximately one-third of those killed are the smoker’s children, and another 14% are spouses. The smoking-related fire death rate for ages 65 and older is three to four times greater than the death rate for those ages 18-64, despite a higher proportion of smoking among the younger set.2
Most of the fatalities in home fires start by smoking materials smoldering in upholstered furniture (39%) or mattresses and bedding (27%).3 The cigarette heats materials to the point of smoldering combustion and, if left burning, eventually transitions to flaming combustion.4 A lit cigarette dropped or discarded onto soft goods, such as a mattress or couch, can smolder for an hour or two, during which occupants may fall asleep, leaving them more vulnerable to fatal injury when fires transition to flaming.
In 2010, U.S. fire departments responded to an estimated 90,800 smoking-material fires. These fires resulted in an estimated 610 deaths, 1,570 injuries, and $663 million in direct property damage. Fire deaths peak in the late evening and early morning hours (10 p.m. to 5:59 a.m.).5
In 2003, the state of New York passed the first fire-safe cigarettes (FSC) law, prohibiting the sale of cigarettes that do not comply with the self-extinguishing standards set out by the statute. The list of states with laws on the books expanded to 32 in 2009, nearly tripling the number extinguishing the leisurely smoke in 2007 (the year the legislation passed in Massachusetts). The cigarettes, banded to slow the burn within seconds of not puffing, forced a constant “Flick [of] the Bic,” as cigarette ads used innuendo.
It’s hard to see the difference between the FSC and traditional cigarette, except on the carton or individual pack where the letters FSC denote fire-safe cigarettes, or in some states, the letters RIP for Reduced Ignition Propensity. A closer look at the cigarette reveals the circular speed bumps at regular intervals.
Smokers declared they’d “rather fight than switch” to the banded cigarettes. It’s aggravating having to reignite. They cite the metal taste in their mouths from chemicals used in banding and the added dangers to health from the side-seam adhesive. In November 2008, Citizens Against Fire-Safe Cigarettes started an online petition citing many of the risks of these cigarettes and advocating individual responsibility in preference to federal regulation.
During the past decade, states fell in line and there was little empathy for smoker inconvenience or real or perceived added health concerns.
As of 2012, the FSC law was in all states and the District of Columbia. To maintain regulatory uniformity, all states are using the “model” regulatory bill based on the New York fire-safe cigarette law.
The laws basically require cigarette manufacturers to certify that a cigarette variety has been tested and meets the fire safety standard as having reduced ignition propensity—a greater likelihood of self-extinguishing—using a prescribed laboratory test method, E2187, developed by ASTM International.
The standard measures the ignition strength of a cigarette placed on a material and whether the ignition strength can generate enough heat to maintain burning of the cigarette. The test also compares the relative strength of different cigarette designs.6
Manufacturers must submit certification that the cigarette brand was tested and met safety performance standards. There are generally steep fines for selling cigarettes in violation of any state’s law.
When the laws in each state are fully implemented, the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), Fire Analysis and Research Division, projects that smoking-material fire deaths will be down by 30% from 2003, the last year before any state implemented the law.7
The Coalition of Fire-Safe Cigarettes, coordinated by the NFPA, is working to support the development of strategies to implement and enforce FSC laws.
1Bella English, Boston Globe, We could have had such a great life, www.boston.com/yourlife/health/other/articles/2005/05/04/we_could_have_h..., May 4, 2005 [accessed July 10, 2013].
2National Association of Attorneys General, Adoption of Fire-Safe Cigarettes by Tobacco Industry May Save Countless Lives, www.naag.org/adoption-of-fire-safe-cigarettes-by-tobacco-industry-may-sa... [accessed July 10, 2013].
3John R. Hall, Jr. The Smoking-Material Fire Problem, National Fire Protection Association, Fire Analysis and Research Division, www.nfpa.org/~/media/Files/Research/NFPA%20reports/Major%20Causes/ossmok... 2012 [accessed July 10, 2013].
4ASTM International Designation: E2187-04 (2004) Standard Test Method for Measuring the Ignition Strength of Cigarettes, archive.org/stream/gov.law.astm.e2187.2004/astm.e2187.2004#page/n1/mode/2up [accessed July 10, 2013].
5See Note 4.
6See Note 4.
7See Note 3.