Students’ Tenacity on Novelty Lighter Bill May be Rewarded

By State Senator Julie Lassa


A group of students at Pittsville Elementary School in Wood County have been getting an intensive civics lesson – one that’s lasted eight years so far, but one that I hope will be coming to a successful conclusion soon.

When the students were in second grade, one of their classmates died in a tragic house fire that the child started himself while playing with a lighter. Shortly afterward, the students saw an article in Weekly Reader warning about the dangers of novelty lighters, cigarette lighters that have fanciful designs that make them look like toys.  They approached Pittsville Fire Chief Jerry Minor to ask what they could do to prevent other kids from being injured or killed by these lighters, and that’s when their civics lesson began.

Chief Minor contacted me and other local legislators and asked us to introduce a bill to ban the sale of novelty lighters to minors.  Child safety has always been a focus for me as a legislator, and when Chief Minor showed me what some of these lighters look like, I realized the hazard they present, especially to children.

Novelty lighters are products that are designed to look very much like toys but which have butane or white gas cigarette lighters built into them. Some of these lighters play music or have flashing lights, and they come in a wide variety of colorful shapes: mobile phones, cameras, fishing lures, cartoon characters, even rubber ducks.  Naturally, children are attracted to these lighters, and because they look so much like toys adults are often fooled into thinking they are safe for kids to play with.

To illustrate the hazard they present, Chief Minor will mix a few novelty lighters in a box with an assortment of small plastic toys, and ask observers to tell which items are lighters and which are toys.  It’s a task most adults find challenging; left to the exploring hands of a three- or four-year-old, these lighters are a tragedy in the making.

Those tragedies include the two young children in Arkansas who were killed after they used a motorcycle-shaped lighter to set their apartment on fire.  In Oregon, two children were playing with a lighter that looked like a dolphin; they started a fire in which one child was killed and left the other permanently brain damaged.  One six-year-old picked up a miniature baseball bat while shopping with his mother, only to burn part of his face.

Working with fire safety experts and the lighter industry trade group, I drafted a bill that would prohibit the sale of novelty lighters to children, and would make it illegal to display them in a retail store where children would have access to them.   Sixteen other states currently have similar bans in place.  The bill is supported by the Wisconsin EMS Association, the Wisconsin State Fire Chiefs Association, the Wisconsin State Firefighters’ Association, the Professional Fire Fighters of Wisconsin, the Wisconsin Fire Protection Coalition and the City of Milwaukee.

I have reintroduced the bill each session, and Chief Minor and the students have come to the State Capitol each time to testify to legislative committees about the need to keep these lighters out of the hands of children.   Last session, we came close: the bill passed consumer protection committees unanimously in both the Senate and Assembly, but the legislative session ended before floor votes could be scheduled.

This session’s version of the novelty lighter proposal has passed the Consumer Protection Committee in the Assembly, and had a public hearing in the Senate Judiciary Committee just last week.  With the strong bipartisan support their efforts have generated, I’m confident that the persistence of Chief Minor and his young lobbyists will finally be rewarded by making Wisconsin safer for children.