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State ban on novelty lighters makes its way to Senate vote

SALEM — The Oregon Senate remains the final hurdle in a statewide effort to douse the sale of flame-shooting lighters that look like matchbox cars and rubber ducks.

The issue has been a focus of the Rogue River Fire District for the last couple of years, including the November passage of a citywide ban. The Oregon House of Representatives voted unanimously Feb. 4 to approve HB 2365, clearing the way for Senate discussions that began Thursday.

In all likelihood, the bill will move through the Senate and be signed into law by Gov. Ted Kulongoski.

State Rep. Sal Esquivel, R-Medford, is a member of the Business and Labor Subcommittee where the House legislation was finalized. He said one of his colleagues in the committee brought in a lighter that looked like it belonged in a bathtub or racing down the Rogue River.

"When I was a kid we just played with matches," Esquivel said. "This kind of entices the kids to play with these things because it's cute. It actually has a substantial amount of flame that comes out of it."

Firefighters in Rogue River, the second city in Oregon to ban the lighters, realized the confusion it caused among area children during "Tool or Toys," presentations.

Jeff Fitzgerald, a Rogue River firefighter, said the lighters always elicited the same response from children. "Every time the kids yell out 'toy,' " he said.

After one presentation, Fitzgerald said, firefighters gave students the opportunity to physically separate tools from toys.

"All the lighters found themselves in the toy box with the rest of the toys," Fitzgerald said.

The alarm caused by the children's responses thrust the fire department into a grassroots effort that involved asking businesses to voluntarily discontinue selling novelty lighters.

Area businesses were receptive, Fitzgerald said, but the department had to discuss the issue each time a new business opened its doors.

The ban stifles the sale of lighters before they reach store shelves, he said.

State Rep. George Gilman, R-Central Point, expects the Senate to approve the measure because it is a "feel good bill for public safety." Oregon is on the verge of becoming the third state to ban novelty lighters, joining Tennessee and Maine. Eighteen states are considering similar legislation.

Bob Albrecht is a freelance writer living in Eugene.