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The balloon industry has a lobby? It does. And it’s active. Here’s why

Fighting bans on balloon releases is an issue for The Balloon Council.

They are ubiquitous at every celebration.
They play a central part in perhaps the most famous “Curious George” book.
And, as any mischievous teen or college student will tell you, sucking in the gas that helps them float makes you talk funny and brings laughter to all within earshot.But if you think balloons are just fun and games, think again.

In fact, when NJBIZ went searching for an industry one wouldn’t think would have a large lobbying presence in the state, we were stunned to learn that the balloon industry trailed only the more expected health care and gaming industries among the top clients of the state’s largest firm.

Mark Zettler, the president of Balloonacy, a Hackensack-based balloon retailer and wholesaler, and the publisher of the online magazine Balloons & Parties, said the industry is greatly misunderstood.

“The general public has a perception that we are not a real business,” he said. “Balloons have a sense of wonder. They are lighter than air. But that doesn’t mean we don’t have overhead costs like every other industry.”

And it doesn’t mean they don’t have business and legislative concerns.

The industry, in fact, has so many that the New Jersey-based Balloon Council spent more than $230,000 in lobbying efforts in 2014, according to the New Jersey Election Law Enforcement Commission.

What’s the cause of all this?

It all dates back to a piece of proposed legislation from more than two decades ago.

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Any event where a number of helium-filled balloons are released into the air at the same time or in rapid succession is considered a balloon release.

In 1990, environmentalists — concerned about what happens when the balloons eventually fall back to Earth — led an effort to have balloon releases banned in New Jersey.

Their efforts caught the attention of Dan Flynn of the Pioneer Balloon Company —way out in Wichita, Kansas.

Flynn’s company didn’t do business in New Jersey, but that didn’t stop him from recognizing an alarming trend.

Prior to the proposed New Jersey ban, similar legislation had been passed in California, Virginia, Tennessee, Florida and Connecticut.

Flynn contacted Princeton Public Affairs Group in Trenton, which spearheaded a move to create The Balloon Council. And while Flynn remains the council’s chair, Lorna O’Hara, a lobbyist at PPAG, serves as its executive director.

“When the legislation was introduced in New Jersey, the real fear was that there could be a domino effect and bans would trend across the country,” O’Hara said.

The Balloon Council argued that balloons are biodegradable and the fiscal impact on government enforcement of the ban could run as high as $600,000 per year. The balloon release ban legislation was ultimately defeated in New Jersey, as well as any other proposed statewide bans since 1990.

“We don’t advocate for balloon releases and we don’t organize them, but we don’t deter them either,” O’Hara said.

The Balloon Council, O’Hara said, argues the stigma of this type of legislation could be very damaging to balloon sales.

“It’s more about the reputation and the potential stigma of the product,” she said. “We want to keep any associations to balloons positive.”

Not everyone thinks balloons are a positive thing.

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Environmental groups, such as Clean Ocean Action in Highlands, were active in advocating for balloon release bans and continue to speak out against them.

“To some, balloon releases are exciting, but, basically, it’s reverse litter,” Executive Director Cindy Zipf said. “What goes up must come down, and it’s still littering.”

According to Zipf, her organization finds hundreds of balloons along the Jersey Shore line.

“That is just what we are able to pick up on the beach,” she said. “There are undoubtedly hundreds more that have entangled marine life or have been ingested.”

According to O’Hara, one of The Balloon Council’s goals is to commission an updated biodegradability study.

“Latex balloons are biodegradable; that is not disputable,” she said. “But we are trying to conduct another biodegradability study. We want more scientific data on the rate and the time it takes for a balloon to break down.”

While the bill was defeated nearly 25 years ago, select balloon manufacturers and distributors from across the country continue to fund the council. There is no membership fee to join and the council hopes that incentivizes more retailers to become members.

“Our retailers are our grassroots,” O’Hara said. “They are living this business day to day and they are the ones who feel threatened about their livelihood.”

The council created a Responsible Balloon Retailers program to promote a code of conduct they refer to as “smart balloon practices.”

Smart practices include never tying helium-filled balloons with metallic ribbons — which are not biodegradable — and proper disposal of balloons.

What balloons are made of, how they are used and how they are disposed is only one debate.

And it ultimately may not be the biggest the balloon industry faces.

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Helium may be an abundant element, but there is a finite supply.

And it’s used in many ways outside of balloons.

In fact, it is critical to several industries, including fiber optics, aerospace and medical diagnostics.

And while we don’t figure to run out of it anytime soon, Zipf questions if we should be preparing for that day nonetheless.

“Helium is a rare element that is used for medical purposes, like MRIs and other sensitive technology,” she said.

“The supply we have on Earth is all we will ever have. Should we use part of that supply by releasing into the air?”

PPAG’s Washington, D.C., affiliate, Winning Strategies Washington, lobbied on the council’s behalf during the Helium Stewardship Act of 2013 hearings. Due to a law that was set to expire two years ago, the Federal Helium Reserve was nearly shut down.

While the reserve ultimately was kept open, a helium demand continues to outpace supply, causing a spike in price.

The Balloon Council continues to lobby for the maintenance of the helium legislation, but even that may not be enough.

According to Zettler, sales by balloon wholesalers and retailers have slumped because it is difficult to pass the increased cost of helium on to the customer.

“The gas itself became more expensive than the product it was filling and consumers blamed us when the prices went up,” he said.

It’s no wonder the balloon lobby is so big. And so active.

Beyond lobbying services, PPAG provides association management services, which include public relations and communication services.

September is International Balloon Month and The Balloon Council is launching the #LiftUpSomebody campaign.

Retailers, with the support of The Balloon Council, will be urging customers to give a surprise balloon arrangement to friends, family, coworkers, or complete strangers.

“It is a celebratory and fun industry,” O’Hara said. “We wanted to go beyond just responding to legislative issues and launch more social initiatives to promote our safe balloon practices.

“International Balloon Month is a way for everyone to celebrate balloons and to get our message out about how to safely enjoy the party balloons.”

Even if the industry is about so much more than just fun and games.

E-mail to: dariam@njbiz.com
On Twitter: @dariameoli

Daria Meoli

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