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Proposed Novelty Lighter Ban Sparks Neb. Debate

Wed, 01/22/2014 - 11:37am
Grant Schulte, Associated Press

LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) -- Legislators took on Nebraska novelty lighter sales on Tuesday, debating whether parents could be trusted to protect their children or whether the responsibility should fall to the state.

The measure would prevent Nebraska retailers from selling the lighters, some of which resemble animals, tractors, blower dryers and cameras and which sometimes make noise. Firefighting groups say the lighters are more likely to catch a child's eye, while opponents question whether they pose a greater threat than regular lighters or candles. Lawmakers adjourned for the day without voting.

Although state officials were unaware of any accidental fires that were started with novelty lighters, Sen. Les Seiler of Hastings said children could easily view them as toys and hurt themselves or damage property. He pointed to accidents with the novelty lighters in other states, as well as two Lincoln-area apartment fires last year that started with children who were playing with regular lighters.

Firefighters contained a March blaze quickly because the complex was a few blocks from a fire station, he said, but a second fire destroyed a $250,000 complex when a child playing in a bedroom set his blanket on fire. Seiler likened the measure to the state requirement to build fences around swimming pools to keep children from drowning.

"These are the types of attractive nuisances that these toy lighters are," Seiler said. "They can cause serious damage to buildings and property. But more importantly, (they pose a threat) to children."

Opponents questioned whether the bill would actually keep lighters away from children, if parents aren't already keeping watch. Sen. Colby Coash, a father who has worked on child-welfare issues in the Legislature, said the measure was unnecessary.

The responsibility for keeping the lighters away from children "belongs to the parents," Coash said. "I think we have to keep those things in mind as we debate legislation here. Where best do these things fit? In our hands or at the parent's level?"

Fifteen states have passed similar laws after a push by the National Association of State Fire Marshals. Neighboring Iowa has no legislation introduced, but South Dakota and Colorado have pending bills. In Nebraska, the bill has won support from the Nebraska Volunteer Firefighters Association and the Nebraska Fire Chiefs Association.

Maine became the first state to ban novelty lighters in 2008, after a novelty lighter burned the face of Shane St. Pierre in a small grocery store. The boy, who was 6 at the time, was playing with a lighter that resembled a miniature baseball bat. Local governments in California, Washington and Arkansas have also passed ordinances to prevent stores from selling them.

Sen. Ken Haar of Malcolm said he viewed the toys as dangerous to children.

"Children have no way of telling the difference between a toy and a dangerous item such as this, and I think it's appropriate for the state to say they don't belong in Nebraska," he said.

Sen. Bill Kintner of Papillion chastised supporters for creating a "nanny state" that restricts personal behavior.

"We think so little of the people in this state that we have to tell them how to run their lives," he said. "If that doesn't cook your goose, I don't know what does. There's nothing we won't do to regulate their lives."

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