AUGUSTA – While in a small southern Maine grocery store with his mother last June 12 to buy sandwiches, Shane St. Pierre picked up a miniature baseball bat and flicked the switch to see what would happen.

A flame shot out, singeing the child’s eyebrow and burning part of his face. His parents called the state Fire Marshal’s office, and were surprised to learn that Maine had no law banning so-called novelty lighters.

That’s no longer the case.

On Monday, 6-year-old Shane stood next to Gov. John Baldacci as he signed legislation that makes Maine the first state to outlaw the sale of cigarette lighters that are particularly attractive to children because they come in the shapes of cartoon characters, toys and animals.

“It’s not often I get to sign a bill that’s the nation’s first,” said Baldacci, whose desk was covered with an array of novelty lighters including a race car, a sandal, a cow, and two bright red items which ironically were in the shapes of a fire hydrant and fire extinguisher.

Baldacci said that’s where the fun stops. He said more than 5,000 household fires are caused each year by children under 5, and “anything we can do to prevent children from playing with lighters will serve to save lives and homes.”

Novelty lighters without child-resistant devices are banned in European Union countries, and several American states have considered similar bans. They include Arkansas, where two children died in a fire last year blamed on a lighter shaped like a tiny motorcycle.

Municipalities in California, Washington and Arkansas have passed ordinances barring stores from selling them. In Maine, the Dead River Co., which owns a chain of convenience stores, had already opted to remove novelty lighters from its shelves, said Maine Fire Marshal John Dean.

“I’ve already gotten calls from around the country,” said Dean. “We’re going to get ahead of the curve with this.”

The National Association of State Fire Marshals, which Dean heads as president, is supporting an effort to ban novelty lighters across the country.

The Lighter Association, a national trade group, supports laws to ban novelty lighters. But a California-based distributor of the lighters, John Gibson, said in many cases the novelty lighters are safer than regular ones and that complaints stem from “overzealous fire marshals.”

In Livermore, Maine, Shane St. Pierre was in a store with his mother when he was attracted by the baseball-bat lighter, which he mistook as a flashlight, said his father, Norm St. Pierre, fire chief in West Paris. When he flicked the switch, a flame shot out rather than a beam of light.

The child’s injuries prompted St. Pierre to seek a state law, which drew strong enough legislative support to put a law on the books immediately. St. Pierre was joined by many other uniformed fire chiefs from across Maine at Monday’s bill’s signing.

The state will issue safety warnings and word of the new law through YMCAs, pediatricians and family doctors’ offices, said Public Safety Commissioner Anne Jordan. The law does not ban lighters used primarily to light fireplaces or grills.

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