Hawaii fireworks ban not a Capitol priority
By Christie Wilson
Advertiser Staff Writer
Ten years after the last major change in the state's fireworks laws, prospects for a ban on firecrackers, fountains and other consumer pyrotechnics appear as clouded as Hawai'i's skies on New Year's Eve.
In 2000, the Legislature approved regulations intended to tamp down on the use of legal and illegal fireworks, but since then, there has been a threefold increase in fireworks imports, according to data from the Honolulu Fire Department.
Even supporters of a total fireworks ban admit the public is split on the issue and that there isn't enough organized grassroots pressure to move lawmakers to take drastic action to end the ear-splitting noise, lung-choking fumes and sometimes lethal explosions that turn many neighborhoods into what some have likened to war zones.
"There are many residents who support a ban and many who are against it, so the Legislature is getting mixed signals. All of the bills that have been introduced over the years have gone down," said Sen. Will Espero, D-20th ('Ewa Beach), one of several lawmakers who have pushed in recent years to outlaw fireworks.
"I don't think we have the votes in the Legislature today for a ban. It would take a tremendous and huge effort on the anti-fireworks side to really mount a serious effort."
Despite the odds, Espero and Reps. Marilyn Lee, D-38th (Mililani), Mark Takai D-34rd (Pearl City), Faye Hanohano, D-4th (Puna) and others are expected to introduce measures seeking a total ban or other restrictions.
They are hoping public sentiment against fireworks is shifting in their favor in the wake of the recent New Year's holiday that saw an escalation in illegal fireworks and a record 112 people — half of them children — treated at hospital emergency rooms for fireworks-related injuries.
Among the injured were two Maui children who were critically burned and five other people who were admitted to hospitals, according to the Department of Health's Injury Prevention and Control Program.
If such a ban is enacted, Hawai'i would become only the sixth state in the nation to outlaw fireworks. New York, New Jersey, Rhode Island, Massachusetts and Delaware already have bans, according to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission.
Thirty-nine states, including Hawai'i, allow most forms of consumer fireworks, while six others allow only sparklers or novelty items such as pull-string poppers and snappers.
LAW CHANGED IN 2000
The last meaningful regulation of fireworks in Hawai'i occurred in 2000 with passage of laws allowing use of firecrackers only with a $25 permit that carries a 5,000-firecracker limit.
The regulations also increased license fees for importers, wholesalers and retailers, and imposed tougher penalties for possessing aerials.
The laws were intended to discourage sales of the loudest and smokiest items, but didn't restrict use of fountains and paperless firecrackers — which became popular after 2000 and are only a little less noxious than the real thing.
At the time the firecracker permit law was passed, then-Gov. Ben Cayetano said the new rules were "kind of an ingenious way of moving toward wiping out fireworks completely" because it wouldn't be worth paying the $25 fee for a string of 5,000 that would burn in less than a minute.
The governor also said the tougher penalties would deter people from engaging in black market sales.
In fact, 8,055 firecracker permits were issued by the Honolulu Fire Department for the recent New Year's holiday, about 1,100 more than for the previous year, and anyone looking up at the night sky on New Year's Eve can attest to a proliferation of illegal aerials, which many consider the biggest fireworks problem in Hawai'i.
"Every year we get more and more complaints. There are 175,000 people in Hawai'i with some type of lung disease, and New Year's Eve is one of the worst nights for them," said Jean Evans, executive director of the American Lung Association in Hawai'i.
"This year, the lack of wind and vog added to it."
Evans said she expects two major tracks for fireworks legislation during the upcoming session — a statewide ban on consumer fireworks with exemptions for religious and cultural purposes, and a return to county rule over fireworks regulations.
"Enforcement is so much easier when there's a total ban," she said. "We tried last year and got further than they had in the past, so we continue to hope that this year they will think about the health and welfare of the people of Hawai'i."
Former Hawaiian Humane Society official Cynthia Keolanui was part of the Community Fireworks Forum that lobbied the 2000 Legislature for a ban and increased port inspections looking for shipments of illegal aerials.
The coalition included fire and police agencies, the Humane Society, the American Lung Association, fireworks retailers and other groups.
Keolanui said the forum was disappointed with the results of the session and disbanded, although many of the same interests continue to advocate on their own for stricter regulations and enforcement.
"We didn't feel the permitting process really addressed the issue. It's the law-abiding citizens who are going to get a permit, and those who are not, are not," she said. "All you did was put a cost on the people who are trying to do this legitimately. Those outside the law are not suffering any consequences."
Keolanui said that during her work with the Community Fireworks Forum, it became apparent that the notion of a total ban was a dud.
"What we found out in the process is, with the exception of people with health ailments, the majority of people really weren't opposed to fireworks in general, just illegal fireworks," she said.
Since 2000, the anti-fireworks lobbying has been left largely to the American Lung Association and county police and fire departments; and legislative efforts to pass stricter regulations have faltered at the committee level, where no vote is needed to shelve proposed bills.
Espero, chairman of the Senate's Public Safety and Military Affairs Committee, said he couldn't even get enough support from fellow lawmakers last year to advance a proposal to create a task force to study ways to stop import of illegal pyrotechnics.
"One would think that seemed harmless and simple enough, but the bill stalled in committee," he said.
Lawmakers said that happens when committee chairs disagree with a proposed bill, a measure is deemed too controversial, or in talking with other committee members, the chair feels there's just not enough support for it.
"Fireworks has been and still is a longstanding tradition for Hawai'i, and just because of that we see numerous roadblocks every year in terms of trying to ban fireworks," Takai said.
Hanohano, chairwoman of the House Committee on Public Safety, said "a lot of lawmakers just want to stay away from it."
"For me, I want it out in the open. If you don't have the dialogue on it, you cannot make a decision," she said.
Hanohano is backing three fireworks-related bills passed out of her committee during the past legislative session that will carry over to this session. One proposes a tax on the sale of consumer fireworks and another would allow counties to enact ordinances that are more restrictive than the state law, something they are prohibited from doing now because of concerns about interisland smuggling of fireworks.
"Now, because it's a big issue, I think we have a chance of getting the bills out (of committee). Every county has different issues on fireworks and to me home rule is best," Hanohano said.
"But it's hard to sell to everybody and there are people who want a full ban."
Richard Botti, a lobbyist for fireworks manufacturers and retailers, said fireworks regulation "is a really interesting issue because there are so many people who want them and so many who don't want them."
"I would guess the percentage is 50-50. Because of that, how do you make a decision? Either way a lot of people are going to be upset," he said.
Botti and other lobbyists for the Consumer Fireworks Safety Association political action committee has tried to shift the focus of the fireworks debate to illegal aerials, arguing that further restrictions and taxes on consumer fireworks would increase the black market trade and put vendors out of business.
The association plans to be active at the Legislature this year, Botti said, perhaps proposing a reward system for information on illegal fireworks importers and dealers, and new forfeiture laws allowing police to seize homes, cars and other belongings connected to the illegal fireworks trade.
The group spent $15,300 in lobbying expenses in the first four months of 2009, when the Legislature was in session.
"If we sit back and do nothing, there's a risk of having a total ban in there and we'll have more problems and less sales," he said.
Sen. Brian Taniguchi, D-10th (Mänoa, McCully, Makiki), said the fireworks issue is complicated, because there are "different types of fireworks and different solutions."
"There's no real consensus on how to deal with it," said Taniguchi, chairman of the Senate Judiciary and Government Operations Committee.
"In the past there's been a lot of fingerpointing: Why don't the police crack down? Why doesn't Matson check containers? The bottom line is who's going to pay for enforcement? And this year, with no money, it's going to make it harder," he said.
"There's also a sense that there should be some allowance for individual use."
The rampant setting off of illegal aerials and the new-found popularity of concussion bombs may bring the fireworks debate out in the open, the senator said.
"It's getting harder and harder to justify," Taniguchi said.
Espero said "a strong case" can be made that fireworks are a longstanding tradition in Hawai'i rooted in cultural and religious practices, "but it's not one that cannot be overcome."
He believes a majority of residents do not ring in the new year with fireworks, although they may tolerate their neighbors' noisy and smoky celebrations.
"I think this might be the year to try to get other bills through that will strengthen our laws and make the issue of illegal fireworks more under control," he said.
Espero said he plans to support bills calling for more widespread inspections of packages sent by sea and express couriers, and raising permit fees, with the additional revenue going to bolster fire and police agencies that each year "are slammed" with calls about fireworks violations.
"It's not likely there will be enough votes to pass a ban. However, depending on the mood of the community and the pulse of the Legislature, you never know. That's why you try year after year on some bills," he said.
After a half-dozen or so failed attempts to ban fireworks except for public and cultural displays, Takai said he's going to take another crack at it this year.
"A few years ago we created a permitting process and that clearly has not worked," he said. "The difference this year is not the amount of fireworks, which is astronomical, but the duration. It started even before Halloween and it's still continuing. People are a little fed up."
Reports of a record number of severe fireworks- related injuries "also will add to the debate," he said.
"There are some people who believe it's very different than just a decade ago. The celebrations are more intense and more dangerous. It's no longer a tradition when you affect the health and safety of the general public," Takai said.
"I just don't think we should wait for someone else to die or get hurt. At that point, it's too late. I do believe it's different this year. If enough people are fed up enough, there will be a little bit more pressure."
NO ORGANIZED LOBBY
Where that pressure will come from and whether it will be effective is uncertain. There is no umbrella advocacy group or identifiable representative to make the case for a fireworks ban, as there is in the debate over civil unions, smoking, drunken driving and other hot-button issues.
"Part of the problem with the anti-fireworks people is they are not organized and they don't have a strong lobbying group," Espero said. "The American Lung Association will come out against fireworks and there are many letters to the editor, but all of these people collectively are not working together and are not organized."
Evans of the American Lung Association said there are limits to what her agency and others can do on their own.
"No one has the resources to pull something like that together to staff a coalition or anything like that," she said.
A decade after her involvement in the 2000 legislative effort to pass restrictions, Keolanui said she's still not sure public opinion has galvanized against fireworks.
"I don't know if our community is ready for (a total ban) There's not enough of a groundswell of support," she said. "It's really a social change that's going to have to come from the grassroots. I don't think any one organization is going to make that happen."