Please, it’s time to ditch the fireworks

The University of Auckland's Dr Louise Humpage makes a plea to Jacinda Ardern to ban private fireworks once and for all 

I am heartened to hear Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has raised concern about fireworks after referring to her Auckland suburb as a “war zone” on Guy Fawkes night.

On the same night, I wrote her a letter in my head. I couldn’t sleep because fireworks noise continued until 1am and I was worried about my dog locked in the spare bedroom with a ‘calming’ CD playing that was not doing much to minimise her fear. Using my experience of teaching public policy to focus on the broader issues at stake, my letter went something like this:

Dear Jacinda,

There are at least four good policy reasons why your Government should be the one to finally have the fortitude to ban the sale of private fireworks in New Zealand.

First, fireworks are dangerous. Each year they cause injuries to humans and animals. There is some evidence the number of human injuries are in decline, but one is too many in my view and there have been more than 4000 in the past decade. These are not only painful to the individuals involved – as likely to be innocent bystanders as operators of the fireworks – and most will receive assistance through the public health and ACC systems. They are therefore a cost to the state, despite their injuries being entirely preventable.

An international evidence review by the Scottish government earlier this year found that young people and males are most at risk of being injured - groups who are also vulnerable to other risky behaviours that lead to injury or death. Surely we would want to protect them from themselves where we can?

Firefighters and other first responders also put their lives at risk to extinguish the fires caused by fireworks. Given public reluctance to increase the tax base used to pay for essential services, banning fireworks would be one way to reduce such costs. The Scottish review found that bans and restrictions do not completely prevent fireworks-related injuries but they do significantly reduce them.

Second, there is a significant environmental cost to private fireworks. They cause air pollution and leave toxins and chemicals in the air for some time afterwards. This is not only bad news for people susceptible to breathing, asthma or heart issues, but fireworks debris litters our streets for weeks. These are a risk to dogs and other animals who may ingest them, never mind making an unsightly mess. The particulate matter emitted by fireworks can contain metals and other heavy inorganic elements that can stay in our soils and water for long periods.

A total of 40 firework-related fires were reported across the country over the first weekend fireworks went on sale and more than 50 on Guy Fawkes night. This is evidence we are doing significant, direct damage to our natural environment, including sacred maunga and other sites that are culturally important to local iwi.

Third, there is an unacknowledged social and economic cost to private fireworks evident in strained relationships and poor work productivity. In my neighbourhood in central Auckland, fireworks have either kept me awake or woken me up (at 2am, 3am and 5am respectively) for the last six nights since they went on sale.

This not only made me far less tolerant in my interactions with others (particularly when driving) but I’ve been a zombie at work. Even if lots of people are better sleepers than me or live in quieter neighbourhoods, many New Zealanders will spend a week or two losing sleep, affecting their ability to do their job effectively and safely. Increasingly, the science tells us that insufficient sleep also has a long-term impact on our health.

Fourth, polls suggest that the public recognises many of these costs and wishes to ban private fireworks, while maintaining public displays on one night only. For instance, Auckland Council conducted a public consultation where 89 percent of the 8000 responses favoured a ban. This week alone, three separate petitions across the country have called for a ban and a quick Google search finds that this has been a common trend across the last few years, despite the lack of response from our supposedly democratic government.

Our main supermarket chains have stopped selling fireworks due to declined demand. Combined, this evidence suggests that whatever the firework importers will tell you about the need for market choice and competition, fewer New Zealanders are choosing to spend their hard-earned money on fireworks.

Some will say this means we just need more education rather than regulation, but I remember anti-fireworks campaigners coming to my school 40 years ago to tell us about the dangers of the sales of private fireworks and since then the level of education has increased. This suggests education is not an effective tool alone.

The Scottish review also provides international evidence that simply regulating sale times or applying age restrictions is not enough to significantly reduce the combined costs to individuals, families, the economy and the environment. Your Labour-led government says it cares about all of these things – remember how you waxed lyrical about the Wellbeing Budget back in May? Now is the time to follow through on these claims.

This should not be left to local councils but needs strong national direction so all New Zealanders know the rules and the whole country is protected from the economic, social and environmental costs of private fireworks sales. Other countries have done it, including most Australian states back in the 1980s. New Zealanders will survive without the ‘fun’ of throwing incendiary devices in their backyards, just as they do across the ditch.

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