by Project Censored
Published: Last Updated on

At least 4,900 people die in residential fires in the United States every year. According to the U.S. Fire Administration, America has the second highest per capita death rate from fire in the world, as well as the second highest per capita dollar amount of property damage. Total costs of residential fires in this country every year have been estimated, conservatively, at $ 2 billion, when direct property losses are added to indirect costs like temporary shelter and medical care.

And there is no way to place a dollar value on the pain and suffering involved in endless skin grafts and permanent disfigurement the victims of fires undergo.

Fires started by cigarettes are one of the major causes of fire fatalities.  Byron Halpin, at Johns Hopkins, who studied all home fires in Maryland between 1972 and 1977, reported that nearly 45% of the deaths he investigated were in fires started by cigarettes.

A cigarette that would self-extinguish shortly after the last puff could prevent many of these fires. But most American cigarettes continue burning for 20 to 45 minutes after the last puff.

It is estimated that some extremely simple measures, such as a self­ extinguishing cigarette, could save the lives of most of the 2,000 U.S. citizens burned to death each year in fires started by cigarettes.

Why then has none of the agencies concerned with fire safety — such as the Food and Drug Administration, the U.S. Fire Administration, the Consumer Product Safety Commission, or the Health, Education, and Welfare Office of Smoking and Health — implemented such measures?

Critics suggest that it is because of a “nicotine-stained” Congress that is more susceptible to the contributions and pressures of a powerful tobacco lobby than to the health and safety needs of the public.

The failure of the mass media to explore and expose this nationwide problem qualifies this story for nomination as one of the “best censored” stories of 1979.


Mother Jones, January 1979, “The Nicotine Stained Congress,” and July 1979, “Cigarettes & Sofas: How the Tobacco Lobby Keeps the Home Fires Burning,” by Becky O’Malley.