Contraband cigarettes linked to a 'staggering' number of fires

London's Acting Deputy Chief Jack Burt says four out of five fire deaths in the city since 2014 have been related to contraband cigarettes.

17 fires in London this year connected to contraband cigarettes as fire department starts tracking

Burn tests done by the London Fire Department show conventional cigarettes will snuff themselves out, whereas contraband cigarettes will burn down to their filters. (Submitted)

Careless use of contraband cigarettes is a leading cause of fires, injuries—​even fatalities—in London, Ont.

That's according to the London Fire Department, which began tracking fires related to contraband cigarettes this year. 

So far, 2018 has seen:

  • 17 fires
  • Two serious injuries
  • $1.6 million in damages

All of which were related to contraband cigarettes.

"[The numbers are] pretty staggering," said Jack Burt, acting deputy chief.

During his time as a fire investigator, Burt said he noticed a number of fire deaths where contraband cigarettes were present at the scene.

He started digging into the facts, and realized that four out of five smoking-related deaths in London since 2014 were directly related to contraband cigarettes.

The problem with contraband cigarettes

Acting deputy chief Jack Burt says contraband cigarettes can be more dangerous than conventional ones, because of the way they're made. (Paula Duhatschek/CBC)

It's all about the way they're made, Burt said.

Since 2005, all legal cigarettes in Canada have been made with "reduced ignition propensity materials," which self-extinguish when you stop smoking them. 

Contraband cigarettes, on the other hand, burn right down to the filters.

"That's where we have the problem," Burt said.

"You couple that with careless smoking actions, you drop a cigarette in a chair, the cigarette doesn't self-extinguish and then it causes it to start a fire." 

A London Fire Department vehicle warns of the dangers of careless smoking. (Paula Duhatschek/CBC)

Burt says the cigarettes are coming from First Nations in southwestern Ontario as well as Asian countries such as China and India.

In the 10 years after Canada enforced the rule on self-extinguishing cigarettes, there was a 30 per cent drop in fire deaths associated with cigarette smoke, Burt said. Even so, cigarette smoking remains the number one cause of fire deaths in Canada.

"It's still a very dangerous act," Burt said. 

"People need to be cognizant of the fact that if they're smoking, they should be smoking outside. If you are smoking inside, make sure you have a deep enough ashtray that you can put it out, and make sure you put it out, right out, every time."

Burt says the cause of a fire at London's King Street Tolpuddle Housing Co-Operative has not been determined, but that contraband cigarettes were found at the fire. (Kate Dubinski/ CBC News)

Most recently, a fire at a London housing co-operative displaced a number of families and sent a six-year-old boy to hospital.

Burt said that fire is still under investigation, but evidence of contraband cigarettes was found at the scene and is being looked at as a possible cause.

In 2017, cigarettes caused:

  • 23 fires
  • One death
  • 8 injuries
  • $790, 450 in damages

"At the time, we didn't track the difference between contraband cigarettes and conventional cigarettes," said Burt. "I would highly suspect that a large majority of those fires, if not all, were a direct result of contraband cigarettes."

The London Fire Department will continue tracking contraband cigarette deaths through the end of the year and for the foreseeable future.

Burt said that as far as he knows, the fire department is the only one in Ontario that tracks contraband cigarette fires separately from other cigarette-related fires.