- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 13, 2008

DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) — The cartoonish plastic frog with bulging eyes could be a children’s toy — but for the torchlike flame that bursts from the novelty lighter’s head.

“They look like something you would get in a McDonald’s Happy Meal,” said John Dean, president of the National Association of State Fire Marshals, who often shows off the device. “They’re cute, they’re little” — but they can be deadly.

Mr. Dean’s group is backing an effort to ban novelty lighters across the country, and a few states are considering it. In California, Washington and Arkansas, local ordinances have been passed to keep the lighters off store shelves.

Novelty lighters can look like anything from tiny skateboards and cell phones to farm animals and butterflies. Some light up or make noises, including the tiny green frog that elicits a “ribbit” when its flame is ignited.

“They look like toys so kids play with them, and that’s caused a number of injuries and … deaths,” said Iowa state Sen. Keith A. Kreiman, a Democrat, who called the devices “an attractive nuisance.” The Iowa legislature considered a measure last year seeking a study of the lighters, and the matter likely will come up again this session, Mr. Kreiman said.

The European Union has moved to ban novelty lighters, which generally are manufactured in China. Fire officials worry that manufacturers will try to unload the lighters in the U.S.

“What I think is happening now is we’re really getting dumped on. We’re seeing more,” said Judith Okulitch with the Oregon state fire marshal’s office.

Miss Okulitch’s agency was among the first to raise concern about the novelty lighters.

Distributors of the devices defend them, arguing that they are marketed for adults and that it’s up to parents to watch their children.

“Kitchen knives and a lot of the other dangerous items out there that could harm children do not have the safety features that our lighters do,” said John Gibson, owner of San Luis Obispo, Calif.-based John Gibson Enterprises Inc., which distributes novelty lighters.

Mr. Gibson said his lighters are all tested for child safety and in many cases are safer than regular lighters.

Mr. Gibson chalked up complaints about novelty lighters to “overzealous fire marshals around the country.”

Still, a lighter shaped like a tiny motorcycle was blamed for the deaths of two children last year in Arkansas. An Oregon woman was burned when her young child ignited bedding with a lighter that featured a Santa face perched atop a Christmas tree, according to Miss Okulitch’s office.

Last month, Laura Fowler, of Gladwin, Mich., wanted to give her 4-year-old daughter a treat for cleaning her room. She accidentally bought her a novelty lighter, thinking it was a toy Dalmatian dog.

The girl was playing with the dog when Mrs. Fowler saw a flash and realized it was a lighter. The girl wasn’t injured, but Mrs. Fowler said it scared them both.

“Now when she sees it, she says, ‘Owie, Mom, owie,’ ” Mrs. Fowler said.

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