Smoking rates among firefighters may have declined since the 1990s, but too many are adding risks onto their already dangerous job by lighting up.
Firefighters do a dangerous but necessary job. The image of a firefighter rushing into a burning building to rescue trapped survivors is one of the first things you think of, and firmly establishes them as heroes, and even role models. However, their job is undeniably risky, and with the stresses and pressures of their line of work comes a desire to de-stress and distract themselves from the sometimes brutal reality they have to face. Because of this, the link between smoking and firefighters is easy to understand, but it’s still a serious problem that must be addressed.
The Statistics: Smoking Among Firefighters
The rate of smoking among firefighters isn’t often addressed by research, but there are a few results that allow it to be estimated. In the 1990s, smoking rates among firefighters were between 40% and 50%, which was notably higher than the general population. However, more recent research has estimated that 13.6% of career firefighters are smokers, and 17.4% of volunteer firefighters.
The trend towards less smoking is positive, but given that firefighters inhale carbon monoxide, carcinogens and other products of combustion as part of their jobs, smoking is a particularly bad idea in the profession. Continuing in efforts to reduce smoking among firefighters is essential.
The Statistics: Smokeless Tobacco Use Among Firefighters
Smoking rates among firefighters may have substantially declined, but smokeless tobacco use is still common, and much more so than in the general population. The second study cited above found that 18.4% of career firefighters and 16.8% of volunteer firefighters used smokeless tobacco. Smokeless tobacco is safer than combustible tobacco, but there are some smaller risks associated with long-term use.
Why Firefighters Use Tobacco Products
According to the International Association of Firefighters, one of the main risks to firefighters is stress, and it’s easy to understand why. Making life-or-death decisions and taking substantial risks on a day to day basis puts firefighters under psychological strain. Although smoking or other substance use is not a good way to deal with the stress of the job, substance use is often related to poor coping mechanisms in this way. For example, New York firefighters showed an increase in smoking after 9/11, and veterans from the military are also more likely to smoke.
In addition, when you’re stressed, it’s harder to quit smoking. This may be a partial explanation for the higher rates of smokeless tobacco use among firefighters than in the general population.
Positive Changes Made in Smoking Among Firefighters
The difference between the smoking rate among firefighters in the 90s and today shows that many positive changes have already been made in the occupation. Although the wider understanding of the risks of smoking has had a part to play in the decline, one of the main reasons cited is a change in the social norms surrounding smoking among firefighters. As well as shifts towards smoke-free workplaces reducing the opportunities to smoke, there is also peer pressure not to smoke, with good-natured mocking of any firefighters that still smoke whenever the topic is brought up.
Continuing to Reduce Smoking Among Firefighters
This is a very positive development for firefighters, but the smoking rate shows that some additional measures are needed. Some argue that a more liberal attitude should be taken to firefighters smoking, and allow them to make their own decisions, but this argument falls flat when you consider the additional risks of having a smoker on-staff.
Smoking reduces the ability to exercise and do physical work, making people more likely to get out of breath when doing strenuous work for a long period of time. For firefighters, this is a particular issue because the job is physically demanding, and people depend on you in life or death situations every day. If you struggle to keep up with the demands of the job, it could have tragic consequences.
Continuing to inform firefighters about the risks of smoking and giving them support to quit smoking would help with this goal. As with most smokers, firefighters can use medications, nicotine replacement therapy or alternative nicotine products, and behavioral counseling to help them quit. Their job is stressful, so tips on stress management and even sessions offering useful techniques to manage stress could help them cope with the demands of their job more effectively and in a way less likely to do them harm in the long run.
The good news is that a serious problem with smoking among firefighters has been brought in line with the rest of the population in just two decades. However, more needs to be done to protect our firefighters from the avoidable risks of smoking and to protect both their mental and physical health.