Intended for healthcare professionals


Deaths of children in house fires

BMJ 1996; 312 doi: (Published 24 February 1996) Cite this as: BMJ 1996;312:511
  1. Phillip Whidden
  1. Publications editor Association for Nonsmokers' Rights, Edinburgh EH7 4BU

    EDITOR,—Ian Roberts's editorial on the deaths of children in house fires omits to mention what is overwhelmingly the most important factor in fatal residential fires—namely, cigarettes.1 “Smokers' materials” are the source of ignition in nearly half of the house fires in Britain that result in a death. Matches are not included in the government's definition of this term, and in fatal residential fires the term essentially refers to cigarettes. Any discussion of deaths among children because of house fires ought therefore to mention cigarette smoking by members of the victims' households.

    In 1994, at a national conference on fatal house fires in Scotland, Professor Timothy Squires noted that “over 40% to almost 50%” of such fires were caused by cigarettes. Now, against the background of an overall decrease in the rate of deaths in fires in the two ensuing years, that percentage has risen to 54% in Scotland.

    Recently a scientist who used to be the vice president in charge of research and development for a major cigarette manufacturer in the United States went on public record as saying that the tobacco industry has known “for at least 30 years” how to produce what are popularly called “fire safe cigarettes” (ordinary cigarettes with a drastically reduced propensity to result in a fire).2

    Because of requests from the Association for Nonsmokers' Rights, in July 1994 the government released data on the number of children (aged 16 and under) killed in fires caused by smokers' materials in the United Kingdom in 1988-92. The statistical tables (provided by the Home Office's fire statistics section) showed that, on average, 24 children a year died in house fires caused by smokers' materials. Over 90% of such deaths could be avoided if fire safe cigarettes were sold.3

    There are many other reasons, too, why cigarette smoking should be taken into consideration when physical harm to children is being discussed. The chewing and swallowing of cigarettes by toddlers accounts for about 15% of unintentional poisonings of children in Greece. In two thirds of the cases studied both parents were smokers, and in 93% of cases at least one parent was a smoker.4 Add to this the effects of smoking during pregnancy and of passive smoking by children5 (as well as the effect of smoking on the budgetary constraints of families) and it becomes clear that adults' cigarette smoking should be one of the first factors to be considered by scientists discussing the physical harm done to children in our society.


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