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Ky. mulls ban on novelty lighters

FRANKFORT — Kentucky is the latest state to consider a ban on toy-like novelty lighters blamed for fires that have killed at least two children in the United States.

Maine and Tennessee have already banned the devices, some shaped like tiny dogs, frogs, skateboards, baseball bats, even fire extinguishers. Now lawmakers in several other states are pondering bans of their own, and city governments from Sandy, Ore., to New London, Conn., have instituted local prohibitions.

Some Washington lawmakers have been pushing for a federal ban as well.

Frankfort firefighter Carter Northcutt is among an army of first responders across the country pushing to get the China-made novelties off store shelves and out of the hands of children.

"These things are very attractive to young kids, and I don't want to be responsible in my own mind for a kid getting hurt or killed because I haven't done anything about it," said Northcutt, who enlisted state Rep. Derrick Graham, D-Frankfort, to sponsor a bill to ban them.

Graham, who filed the legislation last week, said he isn't aware of any opposition to the measure.

"It's about protecting our children, the most innocent human beings," Graham said. "I don't see how anybody could be opposed to this."

A tiny motorcycle-shaped lighter was blamed for the deaths of two children in an Arkansas house fire two years ago. An Oregon woman was burned when her child ignited bedding with a Santa lighter.

Legislation to ban the devices is pending in Michigan, New Jersey, New York, Texas and Washington, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Maine Fire Marshal John Dean, past president of the National Association of State Fire Marshals, has been pushing for the bans. He makes his pitches with an assortment of cartoonish lighters as props.

"They look like something that a child would get in a Happy Meal," Dean said. "It is very difficult to tell if it is a toy or a lighter, even for adults."

Dean tells stories about children who have flicked the novelties in checkout lines and singed their eyebrows, and about grown-ups who have mistakenly bought the tiny devices for their children, thinking them to be toys.

"There's no need for them," he insisted. "If you need a lighter, you can get a lighter that looks like a lighter."

The Lighter Association, a Washington-based national trade group, supports laws to ban the novelties.

John Gibson, owner of a California company that distributes novelty lighters, said he has stopped dealing in those that might be mistaken for toys because he expects the bans to continue spreading across the country.

"I decided that, because so many states are talking about banning them, I may as well see the writing on the wall and position my business to stay in business," he said.

Still, Gibson said, novelty lighters are tested for child safety and often have protections that exceed those of regular lighters.

Dean said he is convinced many of the novelty lighters are made with children in mind.

"Why else," he asked, "would they look like toys?"