Little pink plastic pigs, dogs, frogs and other animals that would fit perfectly in a menagerie of knickknacks are actually cigarette lighters showing up increasingly at convenience store counters.
The sales trend has local fire officials concerned, with the lighters coming in all sorts of shapes that could capture the imagination of children, from miniature cell phones to chocolate bars, matchbox cars, flashing dice, rolls of quarters and poker chips.
"We teach children that lighters are tools that grown-ups use to start good fires," said Lt. Beverley Walker, the fire safety educator for Hall County Fire and Emergency Services. "Now we have these that look like toys and it complicates it so much."
Said Hall County Fire Marshal Scott Cagle: "It's sending a mixed message to children. They see these things and of course pick them up and think they're toys. Then they start mashing buttons on them. Some parents can't even tell what are toys and what aren't."
Cagle said one store clerk recently told him: "‘I wish they wouldn't put these at the counter because children come up and play with them all the time.'"
The U.S. Fire Administration has documented a few worst-case scenarios involving novelty lighters. Last September, two Russellville, Ark., toddlers died after setting fire to their apartment while playing with a lighter that was made to resemble a motorcycle.
A Maine 6-year-old picked up a lighter shaped like a miniature baseball bat at a grocery store, and thinking it was a flashlight, flicked the switch, according to the U.S. Fire Administration. Flames shot out and burned a portion of the boy's face, according to the federal agency.
Such incidents involving what fire officials refer to as "toy-like lighters" have gotten the attention of lawmakers across the country. This year Maine and Tennessee passed bans on certain novelty lighters that bear too much of a resemblance to toys, and seven other states are considering bans. About 25 local jurisdictions in three states, including Arkansas, have passed local ordinances banning the lighters.
Cagle says the novelty lighters are sold at numerous local stores, including Walgreens, Kangaroo and Bed Bath & Beyond.
Walgreens spokesman Carol Hively said the Deerfield, Ill.-based chain does not sell novelty lighters at all of its stores, "but those that do sell them have them behind the checkout counter, and not on the shelves."
"We're not aware of concern over these products, but we would be willing to lock them up if asked," she said.
Bed Bath & Beyond spokeswoman Catherine Gentile said the company does not comment on the items it sells.
Pete Sodini, CEO of The Pantry Inc., the Sanford, N.C., company that owns Kangaroo stores and other convenience stores in 11 Southeastern states, said through an assistant that in more than 10 years with the company, he had never heard a complaint about novelty lighters.
Cagle said he will be calling on local elected officials and state legislators to support a ban of novelty lighters.
"I don't want to wait until we have a death in Hall County to get something done," he said. "We're trying to get the word out and get something done about it now."