Fire is like sex – it sells. It makes for striking pictures, tapping into ancient fears and fascinations. And, unlike sex, serious fires remain fortunately rare enough to be newsworthy.
It’s no surprise, then, that fires caused by consumer products such as e-cigarettes make bigger headlines than road accidents – precisely because car crashes are statistically far more likely to happen and far more likely to be fatal.
But even among fire stories, not all are created equal. As ECigIntelligence has demonstrated in the past, articles about fires started by e-cigarettes feature in a disproportionate amount of the reportage . This is because they represent a new and interesting product that is growing in use but remains in many ways and to many people an unknown quantity.
A parallel can be seen in the spate of fire stories around last Christmas surrounding hoverboards – those badly named self-balancing two-wheel scooters. They too were a new product that seemed to come from nowhere suddenly to top every holiday wish list before just as suddenly becoming the subject of a host of fire-starter stories.
So do these articles rise to the top because they respond to consumer fears or because they stoke them?
There is certainly an element of salaciousness in the coverage that speaks to fear of the unknown – as is reflected in the language used in the articles. Writers speak of “explosions” and “devastation” caused by shoddily manufactured goods with links to China.
But as stories of this kind of accident are more widely reported they start to lose their edge. Scare stories about hoverboards have largely fallen off the news agenda since early this year. Not so those relating to e-cigarettes, however.
Top-selling UK tabloid The Sun, which regularly features anti-e-cig stories, gave prominence last month to the story of a woman whose e-cig battery “exploded from her handbag ‘like a rocket’”.
A week earlier, rival The People warned teasingly of “graphic images” of the burns suffered by a man whose e-cig battery “exploded in his pocket ‘like a Roman candle’”.
Similar stories appear on a fairly regular basis in all the British tabloids, a handy staple for the newsdesk. In the U.S. too the danger is rarely out of the headlines for long, though there the stories are likelier to feature in regional or broadcast news, as in these recent examples:
- Man claims e-cigarette battery exploded in his pocket (Fox)
- E-cigarette reportedly explodes, starts car fire (ABC news)
- Carter County teen recovering after e-cig explosion (WCYB, Virginia)
On 3rd October the story of a 14-year-old girl who suffered “mild burns” when another passenger’s e-cigarette caught fire on a Harry Potter ride at Universal Studios in Orlando, Florida, causing “a small burn hole in a seat” was considered newsworthy enough to make it onto both CNN and the BBC Website.
Meanwhile, the appetite for hoverboard horror stories seems to have died down.
This may partially be due to the market collapsing. There has been significantly less interest in the product since the beginning of the year. Amazon – in an almost unheard-of move – pulled much of its stock from its Website when fire stories were first reported and even went so far as to recommend customers to dispose of boards they had already bought.
So why the continued interest in e-cigarette fires? Hoverboard fires still happen. In January a California fire killed two dogs while a UK fire injured three children and two adults. Yet neither story made many waves in national news.
In July, the Associated Press reported that more than 500,000 hoverboards had been recalled due to fire safety concerns and that 99 hoverboard fires and “at least 18 injuries” had been reported in the U.S. Significantly, the story reached the online editions of some British newspapers, but not their print versions.
Perhaps e-cigarette fires represent a way to tap into consumer unease about the effects of long-term use. After all, long-term use of a hoverboard is unlikely to have any serious side-effects – although a study into the effects of exercise routines among hardcore users could make interesting reading. But e-cigarettes remain a great unknown in the eyes of many and fire provides an easier way to address this fear – or to play on it, if you’re cynical.
And with nicotine/tobacco use being widely considered as a vice, perhaps there is also a sense in these stories of people getting what’s coming to them, which helps keep them in the limelight.
Either way, it seems e-cig fire stories will continue to feature in the press a while longer. It would be interesting to see whether the stories have had any impact on sales, as those concerning hoverboards clearly have.