READY TO EXPLODE: State’s new fireworks law has retailers predicting their sales will skyrocket

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READY TO State’s new fireworks law has retailers predicting their sales will skyrocket

Indiana’s fireworks industry officials say their business is about to explode faster than a gas-soaked cherry bomb, thanks to a new law that makes it legal to ignite bottle rockets and Roman candles in back yards. And best of all for retailers, the law makes it almost impossible for new competition to get a piece of the action.

“I’m going to sell more stuff,” said Elizabeth Howard, owner of Indianapolis-based Celebration Fireworks, one of the state’s largest retailers. “I’m going to get people who used to buy a little come in and get a lot.”

The industry already sells $60 million worth of novelties such as Black Cats annually, according to the Indiana Fireworks Distributors Association.

“We estimate this change in statute will [result in] about a 15 [percent] to 20 percent increase in consumer fireworks,” said John Brooke, a lawyer who represents the group. Previously, a 1985 state law limited consumers to impotent little puffs of smoke that didn’t shoot more than 8 feet off the ground. If consumers wanted to buy a firecracker with the punch of a 12-gauge, they had to sign a legal document saying they’d shoot it off in one of 27 designated areas during holiday weekends or take it out of state.

Those restrictions were widely ignored. However, now that they’re gone, dealers believe more consumers will be willing to buy fireworks and in larger quantities.

Existing fireworks merchants see dollar signs, in part because they think they’ll have a lock on the market. The law limits new retailers to 500 pounds of fireworks, about the size of a concession stand.

“It will be hard for there to be more retailers,” Howard said.

Some of the largest existing merchants, such as Celebration Fireworks, will be able to sell unlimited amounts of fireworks at some locations.

Why the limit on competition? Retailers argue the provision will curtail reckless growth in the industry and reward “people who have been in the business,” said Steve Graves, executive director of the Indiana Fireworks Users Association and the Indiana Fireworks Distributors Association.

Political insiders, however, cite the industry’s sizable war chest. In 2004, the industry’s political action committee-Safe PAC-gave $36,400 to state political candidates. It still has $88,000 on hand, according to documents filed with the secretary of state.

But money doesn’t explain the entire story. The law also contains provisions that have soothed over historic divides.

For instance, Tracy Boatwright, the former state fire marshal and former Democratic state representative who fought to make fireworks illegal for more than a decade, supports the new law.

Under the previous system, Donald Duck and Mickey Mouse bought a lot of fireworks, he said. In other words, people made up fictitious names for the affidavits and went about putting lighters to fuses as if the state had no restrictions.

“Years ago, when I served in the House, I said, ‘If we’re not going to make [fireworks] illegal, then let’s legalize them once and for all and quit this sham,'” Boatwright said.

Indiana’s Department of Homeland Security, which oversees the state’s fire marshals, also endorsed the bill.

“In the aggregate of the bill, there are many safety features built in that we felt override the accommodation to legalize fireworks,” said Eric Dietz, director of the Department of Homeland Security.

Among the new safety features: Purchasers must be 18 years old. Before, anybody could buy toy fireworks like sparklers. Fireworks stands will also be inspected before they’re allowed to open.

Gov. Mitch Daniels had his own reasons for signing the bill, and they had little to do with Disney characters.

The new law will help generate cash for firefighter training, thanks to a new 5-percent “public safety fee,” or tax, on firework sales. The tax should generate $4 million annually.

“Everywhere I traveled as a candidate, I learned from firefighters about their longtime dream of a fire academy like other states have. I committed to get this done, and today we do,” Daniels said at a news conference the day he signed the bill.

The state’s Department of Health wasn’t asked to join the debate, but managed to keep a provision in the bill that requires the reporting of all fireworks-related injuries.

The previous law also had an injuryreporting provision. From May 2003 to December 2004, the state documented 494 injuries related to fireworks-mostly children who burned themselves.

But there are still a few people who oppose the new law.

“We think this is a very dangerous precedent because every year we see the results of these laws … children and adults are maimed and injured,” said Lorraine Carli, spokeswoman for the National Fire Protection Association near Boston.

Physicians treated 9,300 fireworks injuries in 2004, according to NFPA data.

Brooke and others who represent the industry say safety concerns are overstated. Today’s fireworks are safer than ever, thanks to aggressive manufacturing precautions enforced by the American Pyrotechnics Association, he said.

For example, in 1976 there were 38 injuries for every 100,000 pounds of fireworks detonated in the United States, he said. By 2004, that number had dropped to 4.1-an all-time low.

Indiana isn’t the only place where more bottle rockets will light the sky on the Fourth of July.

Maryland, Minnesota, Vermont, Georgia and Arizona have all made it easier to purchase fireworks in the past few years. Only five states-including Ohio and Illinois-do not allow the sale of consumer fireworks.

“We’re not seeing any trends in the opposite direction [toward more regulation of the industry],” said Julie Heckman, executive director of the American Pyrotechnics Association.

Fireworks consumption increased from 68 million pounds in 1990 to 190 million pounds in 2002, according to U.S. International Trade Commission data cited by the American Pyrotechnics Association.

“Following the horrific events of Sept. 11, 2001, there’s been a huge increase in national pride and patriotism,” Heckman said, when asked what’s behind the increase in demand.

Nationwide, she said, fireworks are now an $880 million industry.

Celebration Fireworks’ Howard estimates 85 percent of her share of the pie will come in the first few days in July. She declined to share her company’s annual revenue.

Her 10 stores will have 60 workers on staff for the crush of people looking for fireworks with names like Typhoon Alert, Tyranny, Destroyer, Baked Alaska and Meteor.

“People love fireworks,” she said. “It’s American.”

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