January 31, 2011
By Paul Crocetti
MARLBOROUGH — At a community meeting this month, Marlborough resident Rebecca Porter proposed an idea close to her heart: legislation that would ban the sale of lighters to children under 18 years old.
The next day – the deadline to file legislation – her idea had become a bill.
Porter works in Natick at the Brandon School and Residential Treatment Center for boys with emotional behavior issues. One of the problems among the children she and her colleagues work with is fire-setting.
Porter spoke up at a French Hill Neighborhood Association meeting Jan. 20, telling legislators that it’s too easy for children to acquire a lighter in Massachusetts.
The state banned the sale of novelty lighters last year.
“We felt the next logical step would be banning the sale of lighters to minors,” said Porter, vice president of the French Hill Neighborhood Association. “All lighters can be dangerous in the hands of kids.”
State Sen. Jamie Eldridge, D-Acton, said he thought the idea made sense. The morning after the meeting, he spoke with legislative staff, who helped with the wording. Then he filed the legislation.
“That’s the value of the community meetings I’ve had,” Eldridge said.
In 2008, the Brandon School helped institute a bylaw in Natick similar to the proposed legislation. One of the boys getting fire-setting treatment, as part of the community service portion of the program, worked with a Natick firefighter on the idea.
“Kids talk about how readily accessible lighters and matches are,” said Liz Maestranzi, clinical supervisor at the school.
Although Natick stores did not push back, some questions arose at Town Meeting, such as the concern that the problem was a parenting issue, Maestranzi said. But out of a couple hundred people, only a few concerns were raised.
State Fire Marshal Stephen Coan said he would not comment on specific legislation he has not thoroughly reviewed.
But juvenile fire-setting is a serious problem in the state and the country, said Jennifer Mieth, state fire marshal spokeswoman.
“Keeping matches and lighters out of the hands of children is crucial to preventing fires and burns,” Mieth said.
Eldridge said he thinks the bill has a good chance of making progress in the Legislature, especially given the recent novelty lighter ban.
“I would hope there would be some momentum,” Eldridge said. “Clearly it’s a common sense solution.”
State Rep. Steven Levy, who was also at the French Hill meeting, signed on as a co-sponsor.
“If you look at the need for lighters, it goes hand in hand with cigarettes,” said Levy, R-Marlborough.
Since the state already has a minimum age of 18 for cigarette purchases, it made sense to put the same restriction on lighters, Levy said.
Eldridge said he is curious to see if tobacco companies get involved in the discussion. A representative from Lorillard, one of the country’s biggest tobacco companies, declined to comment on the legislation.
Porter said she had filed her idea away as something that may come up down the line, so she was surprised when it became a bill immediately.
“I was really impressed by his response and Representative Levy’s response,” Porter said. “It’s exciting it’s happening this quickly.
“We were surprised this isn’t legislation in Massachusetts. It’s overdue.”