The Center for Social Gerontology 
Tobacco & the Elderly Project
Fall/Winter 1996
2307 Shelby Avenue, Ann Arbor, Michigan 48103  
Tel: 734-665-1126  Fax: 734-665-2701  

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The headlines tell the tragic stories of smoking-related fires across this country:

Age Group of
Tobacco-Related Fire Deaths GraphElderly Woman Killed After Cigarette Ignites Blaze

On August 12, 1997, a 78 year old Los Angeles area woman confined to a wheelchair died in an apartment fire caused by her smoking in bed, according to fire officials. The blaze in the 3-story apartment building caused an estimated $20,000 in damages.


Cigarette Ashes Cause 4 Alarm Fire in San Francisco Hotel

The same night in San Francisco, a 4-alarm fire roared through a residential hotel, forcing 350 people into the street and into emergency shelters. An elderly resident of the hotel who complained of shortness of breath said, "I didn't think I was going to make it." after escaping from the raging fire.

Fire investigators said a careless 32 year old smoker sparked the blaze by leaving a cigarette unattended in his room in the 5-story hotel, where the cigarette ashes smoldered for hours before erupting into flames. The police said the negligent smoker could face criminal charges.

Injuries sent many hotel residents to three hospitals for treatment of cuts, bruises and smoke inhalation. Some residents assisted in evacuating others, helping to carry or wheel out injured and elderly occupants. The Red Cross set up an emergency shelter at a nearby recreation center. Many residents tried to return to the hotel to reclaim belongings, but those who lived on the top floors lost nearly everything.

Tobacco President's $1 Million Home Lost to Fire Caused by Cig

In one of those ironies that make you wonder about justice in nature, in April, 1997, the $1 million luxury vacation home of R.J Reynolds Tobacco Co. president Andrew Schindler burned to the ground on Figure Eight Island in North Carolina. The reported cause of the blaze was a workman's discarded cigarette butt. R.J. Reynolds makes Camel, Winston and Salem cigarettes; the company also reportedly developed a fire-resistant cigarette, but has failed to market it.

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A cigarette that doesn't cause fires - impossible? No. In fact, very possible. But, the tobacco industry won't produce and market such cigarettes. Why?

In the early 1980's, spearheaded by Andrew McGuire, head of San Francisco General Hospital's trauma center, authorities on the federal and state levels began to challenge the cigarette companies to produce a fire-resistant or self-extinguishing cigarette. Congressman Joe Moakley (D-MA) led an effort to gain passage of legislation to require such fire-safe cigarettes; an effort that produced two study commissions to investigate the feasibility of such cigarettes.

The tobacco companies denied that a fire-resistant cigarette was feasible. Claiming that "the experimental fire-retardant cigarettes their companies had explored were too hard to draw on or had an unsatisfactory taste, making them commercially unviable," the companies refused to market fire-safe cigarettes.

However, two sets of facts flew in the face of these claims by the tobacco companies. First, the Congressional study commissions in the 1980's concluded that fire-safe cigarettes could be produced simply by increasing the density of the tobacco packed into the cigarette, reducing the circumference of the cigarette, using a less porous paper to wrap the cigarette in, and eliminating the citrate additive that speeds up burning. In addition, the fire-safe cigarettes could be produced with the same yields of tar, nicotine and carbon monoxide as regular brands of cigarettes. These cigarettes were fire-safe because they would either self-extinguish before igniting furniture or bedding, or they would not burn hotly enough to ignite adjoining furniture.

Second, the tobacco companies own secret research had demonstrated that it was possible to produce fire-safe cigarettes that consumers judged to be as acceptable in taste as regular brands. As early as

1981, Philip Morris, the giant of the tobacco industry and producer of Marlboro, the world's most popular cigarette, secretly conducted Project Hamlet (as in "to burn or not to burn...") to determine the feasibility of producing a fire-safe cigarette. This detailed research was kept secret from the Congressional study commissions, while the tobacco companies continued to deny the feasibility of marketing a fire-safe cigarette.

While continuing their denials, Philip Morris's own research team had evidence by 1987 that a less flammable version of Marlboro had been found by a panel of consumers to be as acceptable in taste as regular Marlboro cigarettes. This was also hidden from the public and the study commissions.

The tobacco companies continued to argue that a fire-safe cigarette would be a marketing disaster for them because the cigarette would be too hard to draw on. One tobacco company representative claimed that it would be like trying to drink a milk shake through five straws laid out end to end. However, Andrew McGuire, who served on the federal study commission, pointed out that the tobacco companies had made the same claims about reduced draw and poor taste before they introduced filter and lowered-tar brands of cigarettes.

As has been their pattern of denial and obstruction, the tobacco industry covered up the existence of information it had about fire-safe cigarettes and stalled any federal action that would have required such fire-safe products. Why? Richard Kluger, in his Pulitzer-prize-winning book, Ashes to Ashes, stated, "the [tobacco] industry was reluctant to risk introducing a manufacturing technique that would remind consumers of still one more way that smoking imperiled human life," in spite of the fact that it had the potential to save thousands of lives.

An equally important reason for their delays and denials concerning fire-safe cigarettes is their fear of legal liability. They deny that fire-safe cigarettes are feasible. Why? Because they fear that if they make fire-safe cigarettes, it will be an implied admission that their current cigarettes are not fire-safe and cause deaths from the fires they start. This could produce law suits against the tobacco companies from the families of victims of these fires, who would claim that the tobacco companies knew their cigarettes were not fire-safe, covered up that information, and intentionally did not produce a fire-safe cigarette that they knew they were able to produce.

Will fire-safe cigarettes ever be produced? Possibly; but probably only if the federal government requires it. And, these cigarettes still won't be safe in terms of health. But, as long as people smoke, shouldn't the cigarettes they use be fire-safe so that thousands of innocent victims don't get burned or die or lose homes and possessions from smoking-caused fires?

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Smoking-Related Fires Threat to Smokers and Non-Smokers

Almost 1,400 people died in the United States in 1995 from burns caused by fires started by smoking, and thousands more suffered burns that were not fatal. Of these deaths, over 700 occurred to persons aged 50 and over, with almost 440 of these deaths to persons aged 65 and over.

Three years earlier, in 1992, the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), reported that over 163,000 fires were caused by cigarettes, pipes, cigars and other smoking-related devices. These fires resulted in 1,075 deaths, 3,232 persons being injured and $318 million in direct property damage.

Smoking is the number one cause of fires that kill older Americans. Likewise, smoking materials are the leading cause of fire deaths among Americans of all ages, and the second-leading cause of non-fatal injuries related to household fires. As a result of these fires, thousands of people, including many elderly persons, are left with their possessions burned and no where to stay.

The NFPA states that the 65+ age group is twice as likely to die or be injured in a fire as are younger adults. Further, the risk of death or injury from fire goes up with age -- people age 75 and over are three times as likely to die in a fire as younger adults; at age 85 and older, four times as likely.

Thus, not only is smoking a serious health hazard, the fires that result from smoking are a serious threat to the health and safety of both smokers and non-smokers who happen to live in the same building or nearby buildings.

Tobacco-related fires are most often started when lit cigarettes, cigars or pipes or their ashes drop onto furniture, beds or rugs and smolder until a fire starts. An ember can smolder for hours before it bursts into flames -- often after the smoker or other household members have gone to sleep.

In addition to the direct danger from smoking-produced fires, toxic fumes from the smoldering smoke can overcome the smoker before the fire even gets started. Thus, the smoker may be incapacitated and unable to put out the fire before it spreads and before automatic sprinklers or other fire protection systems are activated.

The elderly are particularly vulnerable to the dangers of smoking-related fires for a number of reasons:

  1. The skin of older persons is thinner and more vulnerable to fire.
  2. The reflexes of older persons slow down, and this can make fast exits from a fire more difficult.
  3. Older people are more likely to be on medication that makes them drowsy. This is exacerbated if the medication is combined with alcohol or smoking.

The dangers of smoking-related fires are just one more reason for smokers to quit. And, because non-smokers are also threatened by smoking-related fires, this is a compelling reason for adopting no smoking policies in common areas of apartment buildings, elderly housing facilities, Senior Centers, and other public areas of buildings used by all persons.

Inasmuch as hundreds of thousands of fires are started every year by cigarettes -- with the resultant death, injury and property loss -- it would seem sensible for the tobacco industry to have developed a cigarette that was fire-resistant; a cigarette that would go out when it wasn't being actively smoked/puffed on. In fact, they did, according to secret records disclosed recently. But, they didn't market it. See why in the accompanying article on page 4.

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In 1991, a fire started in a Michigan nursing home with 75 residents when a smoldering cigarette ignited after cleaning staff emptied ashtrays into the trash bag. The fire was contained by the automatic sprinkler system which is required by state regulation. In 1996, a fire in a Washington state nursing home was caused by a woman in her 80's who dropped cigarette ashes on a couch in her room. The nursing home staff had previously warned her about the facility's no-smoking policy and had confiscated her cigarettes and lighters on a number of occasions. Again, the sprinkler system saved other residents from danger.

In 1992, a 61-year old woman, left unattended in her nursing home bed while receiving oxygen through a face mask, received facial burns when she attempted to light a cigarette and instead ignited the oxygen mask and tubing. The Massachusetts resident was saved from further harm when a nursing attendant saw the flash of fire and rushed to the woman's aid. The 144-bed nursing facility was not damaged, but the fire could have had serious consequences, had not the attendant luckily appeared as the fire ignited.

Reports of smoking-related fires in nursing homes are particularly frightening to older Americans because so many residents are bedridden or have serious mobility problems. In the period from 1983 to 1987 there were an estimated 4,130 fires in facilities that care for older persons, accounting for 19 deaths and 202 injuries. Of these fires, 3/4 (3,200 fires, with 12 deaths and 163 injuries) occurred in facilities that had nursing staff.

These news stories typify the death and destruction that seemingly innocent tobacco products can wreak on older -- and younger -- persons. Because we get used to hearing of these and other fires, it is easy to ignore the reality that these accidents shouldn't happen, and that they wouldn't happen -- if the tobacco industry acted responsibly. A responsible industry would acknowledge that it is marketing a dangerous product and would take action to correct the defect. In this case, the tobacco industry refused to acknowledge the danger, while developing a safer alternative -- a fire-resistant cigarette -- and then decided not to introduce it. See accompanying article about fire-resistant cigarettes.

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The issue: Is it appropriate for programs to accept funds from tobacco companies which aggressively market a product that addicts millions of Americans and kills over 418,000 persons annually?

The revelations in recent years about the duplicity of the tobacco industry in its advertising and marketing has led many organizations to question whether funds donated by these companies should be accepted. Some health departments now require contractors to not accept tobacco company funds as a condition of receiving health department funds.

Rarely does history present agencies and their boards and officers with ethical dilemmas such as this one. The Center for Social Gerontology is presenting the following arguments to stimulate discussion within the Aging Network on this important ethical issue.

Those who believe that aging programs should reject tobacco industry funds argue the following:

  1. Organizations dedicated to helping older persons remain healthy have an inherent conflict of interests with the tobacco industry, which aggressively markets an addictive product which, when used as directed, causes disease and the death of over 418,000 Americans annually, 94% of whom are 50 and over and 70% of whom are 65 and over.

  2. Despite overwhelming scientific evidence that smoking causes cancer and other diseases, the tobacco industry continues to deny this and markets cigarettes which are unsafe, instead of developing and marketing a safe product. Such conduct is unheard of in any other consumer product. It is inappropriate for aging programs to pursue joint ventures with companies which operate thusly.

  3. Aging programs should not accept funds from tobacco companies who may later pressure them to support public policy positions favorable to the tobacco industry, but which may not be in the best health interests of older Americans. For example, recently Philip Morris pressured recipients of its funds in New York City to oppose an ordinance which would have restricted smoking in restaurants.

  4. The acceptance of funds from tobacco companies allows them to buy credibility by associating themselves with popular causes, such as feeding the poor elderly, when their major product causes disease and death in these same older persons. (See Philip Morris ad run in New York Times.)

  5. While companies like Philip Morris are conglomerates which own more businesses than just tobacco (Philip Morris owns Kraft Foods and Miller Brewing), they are tobacco-driven companies. Philip Morris earns 2/3 of its profits from tobacco.

Those who believe aging programs should not reject tobacco industry funds argue the following points:

  1. Public funding for aging programs has been insufficient to meet the needs of vulnerable elders for years, and alternative sources of funds are needed for meals and other aging services. The tobacco industry is one of the rare outside funding sources.

  2. Other sources of funds may also be tainted -- possibly going back decades when a "robber baron" donated funds to a foundation. Are aging programs to conduct "searches" of every funding source to determine its "purity" before accepting funds?

  3. Acceptance of tobacco money does not buy the aging agencies' support on public policy matters.

  4. The tobacco industry is entitled to public credit for giving money to aging programs.

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