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Mon, Mar 04, 2002 - Page 19 News List

Chinese lighter company fuming over EU rules

Lighter barons in China say a proposed EU safety standard aimed at saving children's lives would snuff out their industry

REUTERS , WENZHOU, CHINA

Chinese workers inspect cigarette lighters at Wenzhou Weili Lighter Company in China's eastern province of Zhejiang.

PHOTO: REUTERS

Xu Yongshui is fuming.

The president of Weili Lighter Co has watched the Chinese industrial city of Wenzhou journey over 10 years to take the title of lighter capital of the world, but he is now fretting that all this glory could be snuffed out.

Like other lighter barons, Xu is fighting a proposed EU safety standard aimed at saving children's lives -- but which could also douse his hometown's key industry.

The EU is threatening to enact child safety regulations that would ban "unsafe" lighters with an ex-factory price of less than two euros (US$1.74) -- Wenzhou's specialty.

Wenzhou makes 70 percent of reusable lighters in the world. Laid end to end, its products would nearly circle the globe twice.

"Many lighter factories don't see how serious the situation is," Xu said as he careens through Wenzhou's orderly streets in a gleaming white BMW. "They don't know what's going to hit them."

At the heart of Wenzhou's success are the thousands of uniformed workers in some 300 factories piecing together lighters shaped to look like anything from naked women to toilet bowls.

Wenzhou exports up to four-fifths of its annual output of 550 million lighters, the bulk of them to Europe and Japan.

China, still basking in the glow of joining the WTO in December, is fast finding that the fickle flames of international commerce can blow both hot and cold.

The EU rules would force lighter firms to incorporate child-proof locks or switches, spelling trouble for an industry Beijing has hailed as a national model for private enterprise.

"Of course life is paramount, but this ruling is unfair because it's a protectionist measure aimed at us," said Wang Fajing, head of Wenzhou Rifeng Lighter Co. "We want the EU to know that our safety standards are as strict as theirs."

Wenzhou lighter makers said exports could shrink if consumers turned to more expensive but lock-free lighters from other countries, sparking output cuts, layoffs and even closures.

Wenzhou's lighter moguls have enlisted the government, lawyers and media in a war on what they call a blatant, protectionist barrier against a small but key Chinese industry.

"Now that we're in the WTO, Europe is opening its doors to us but it's also putting up these trade barriers," said Zhou Dahu, head of Tiger Lighter Co. "As long as our products hurt their industry they'll find some excuse, some way to exclude them."

Low prices don't mean dangerous lighters, says the vice president of Wenzhou's Smoking Sets Association.

The EU rule is modelled on a 1994 US standard that requires novelty lighters -- the kind toddlers like to finger -- to use a mechanism that makes it hard for children under five to operate.

Deaths associated with children playing with lighters plunged 43 percent between 1994 and 1998, from 230 to 130, the US Consumer Product Safety Commission said in a 2000 report.

But inventing patented safety switches would soak up money and time, erasing the very cost advantage Wenzhou's lighters enjoy because of rock-bottom labor and production costs.

Safety catches could add 10 percent to the three to four yuan (US$0.36 to US$0.48) cost of turning out one lighter, which retail abroad from about 50 yuan to near 600 yuan for well-known brands like Colibri.

"Wenzhou's lighter factories are 100 percent privately run. We make them cheaper here than almost anywhere else in the world," said Xu, shortly before launching into a tirade against a workman who dared to light up on his factory floor.

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