April 23, 2014

Editorial: That other danger from cigarettes

The surgeon general has been warning for five decades against smoking.

No need to run through all the health hazards smoking presents to all those around a lighted cigarette. Those television commercials we all see enumerating some of the diseases that breathing in smoke causes are about as effective an argument as one could imagine. (That they don’t work better than they do is testimony to the irresistible compulsion caused by cigarettes.)

However, breathing in poisonous gas isn’t the only harm the smoking habit holds over anybody’s head.

Well before the 1960s, when the surgeon general’s report warning against smoking came out, newspapers had been carrying stories about fires started accidentally by matches or cigarette lighters kept around the house by smokers.

Just the other day, the Press-Republican ran a story about a City of Plattsburgh fire apparently started by a child playing with a lighter and a piece of paper.

One day later, an article appeared about another fire in the city; that one, firefighters said, was started when someone fell asleep with a lighted cigarette.

According to the U.S. Fire Administration, which is an arm of the Federal Emergency Management Administration, careless smoking is a menace to life.

“Every year, almost 1,000 smokers and nonsmokers are killed in home fires caused by cigarettes and other smoking materials,” the Fire Administration says on its website.

In New York state, more than 20 percent of adults smoke. It may seem hard to believe, in this age of national and individual focus on health and extending life spans, but 1 in 5 adults smoking poses much more than an incidental risk of harm beyond that posed to internal organs.

The Fire Administration argues that:

• Smokers are seven times more likely than nonsmokers to have a fire in their home.

• Fires caused by smoking materials often smolder, sometimes for hours before the first flame.

• For most people who died in residential smoking-related fires, escape was made more difficult because they were asleep when the fire started.

• The risk of dying in a residential fire caused by smoking materials increases with age. More than 40 percent of fatal smoking-material fire victims were age 65 or older, compared to their 13 percent share of the population.

• The most common materials to first ignite are mattresses and bedding, followed by trash and upholstered furniture.

Smoking kills. Health associations have numbers to attest to that.

But, according to the Fire Administration, smoking poses ominous concerns for life that go beyond the often-addressed biological ones.

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