Balloon sellers fear future if state bill passes

A Fresno balloon wholesaler says its business could be deflated if a California bill seeking to ban the sale of helium-filled metallic balloons is approved.

The bill, introduced by state Sen. Jack Scott, D-Pasadena, was sparked by concerns from utility companies over the number of power outages caused by runaway metallic, or foil, balloons becoming snagged in power lines.

If approved, the bill would outlaw helium-filled metallic balloons by 2010 and would punish violators with a $100 fine.

Opponents say the measure is unnecessary and could force them to shut down.

"If we couldn't sell those balloons it would probably put our company and a lot of others out of business," said Terri Adishian, vice president of Balloon Wholesalers International in Fresno. "This bill is overblown."

Balloon Wholesalers International has about 6,000 customers nationwide, with a majority in California. And it sells several million balloons a year, making it one of the largest suppliers on the West Coast.

About 55% of Adishian's business is selling metallic balloons that are popular because of their many different shapes and designs. The 35-person company supplies balloons to major retailers including grocery stores, drugstores and small retailers like Eric Costa whose Clovis-based Just Because sells balloon bouquets.

Costa said that while the ban wouldn't doom his business, it would hurt him financially. About 20% of his business is metallic balloons.

"This just doesn't make a lot of sense," Costa said. "People like these balloons because they can get them in almost any character they want. And I don't even think people are aware that this is happening."

Adishian said Scott's bill may be the first of its kind.

"I don't know of any other state that has introduced a bill to ban foil or metallic balloons," she said.

Supporters say they aren't trying to take the fun out of celebrations. But the problem of metallic balloons causing outages is very real.

"When electrical lines come in contact with metal it causes an excessive amount of current," said Jeff Smith, PG&E spokesman. "It is kind of like sticking a fork in an electrical socket."

Smith said that 211 outages last year were linked to metallic balloons. The outages disrupted power to nearly 150,000 customers in the service area that stretches from Bakersfield to the Oregon border.

Smith said that despite public outreach efforts reminding people not to release metallic balloons, the problem continues.

"This becomes a public safety concern, especially when you lose power to traffic lights," Smith said.

PG&E is joined by Burbank Water & Power, the California Municipal Utilities Association and SEMPRA energy in supporting the bill. Southern California Edison has not taken a position. Spokeswoman Lauren Bartlett said the utility is studying the issue.

Legislator Scott said that while he understands the concerns of small-business owners like Adishian, the issue of power outages is far more serious.

"Having 211 outages in 2007 is a much bigger business loss than the sale of a few balloons when you really stop and think about it," Scott said. "We are talking about a manufacturing plant closing or a hospital. We just can't allow that to continue to happen."

Scott suggested that the balloon sellers fill their metallic balloons with air, which the law allows. The bill outlaws metallic balloons filled with a gas lighter than air, such as helium.

Adishian scoffed at the idea.

"Do you know what happens when you fill a balloon with air?" she asked. "They fall on the floor. They don't float."

Balloon Council spokesman Pete McDonough said the industry could suffer severe losses if the bill passes. McDonough estimated that the balloon industry in California is a $100 million business.

"That is a lot of balloon sales," McDonough said. "This is a big deal to a lot of companies."

This isn't the first time balloon sellers have been the target of legislation. Similar concerns spawned a 1990 law that required weights and labels to be attached to metallic balloons to warn of the dangers if they come into contact with electrical lines.