All hail the mighty balloon lobby

Welcome to one of America’s most expensive B-list political fights.

All hail the mighty balloon lobby

Welcome to one of America’s most expensive B-list political fights.

In New Jersey, the top lobbying spenders are from the following industries: energy, healthcare, insurance, and... balloons.

Last year, the Balloon Council — the trade group behind Bill Clinton’s one true source of joy — funneled $344,099 into state lobbying efforts, trailing major interest groups like the New Jersey Food Council ($1,151,556), the New Jersey Hospital Association ($818,332), and Prudential Financial Inc. ($778,353). Nationally, it has spent more than $1 million in the last five years.

The Balloon Council’s primary target? Anti-balloon environmental laws that it worries will cripple the industry, such as the one brought before the New Jersey House and Senate this month, which would prohibit the “intentional release of balloons inflated with lighter-than-air gases.”

The group, which was founded in 1990, has discovered a way to outmaneuver even federal agencies like the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which say balloons pose a threat to the environment. Today, in large part because of its efforts, only five states have environmental balloon restrictions on the books.

Welcome to one of America’s most expensive B-list political fights.

The last few decades have not been kind to the balloon. In 2012, a global helium shortage forced party-supply stores to ration their supplies, turning away customers. Since the 1980s, there have been countless reports of dead animals whose deaths are attributed to balloons, from beached whales found with remnants in their stomachs to birds entangled in their strings. The problem became so widespread that in 2015, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service urged people on its website not to release balloons, reporting that the detritus from more than 100 of them were picked up on a single New Jersey beach.

The practice perhaps most associated with balloons — their mass-release during celebrations — is the likely culprit of such fatalities. A growing  body of research charges that balloon releases are littering beaches, interfering with power lines, and possibly killing hundreds of animals per year, driving environmental groups to fight against the practice. One 2012 study, for instance, found that balloons accounted for 30.3 percent of all ingested debris among turtles.

The last few decades have not been kind to the balloon.

Though the Balloon Council does not promote balloon releases, which have resulted in an estimated 280,293 littered balloons in the U.S. from 2008 to 2016, they oppose efforts to enshrine a ban on releases into law, fearing that such legislation would frighten customers. “It’s a negative stigma on the product,” Lorna O’Hara, the Council’s executive director told The Outline. “There’s a lot of small mom-and-pops where this is their primary product.”

That product consists of two major types of balloons: latex and foil. Some manufacturers claim that latex balloons biodegrade at the rate of an oak leaf, making them safe to release (anti-balloon groups like the Florida-based Balloons Blow have staged publicity experiments to demonstrate that latex, in fact, lingers for years before it starts to break down). Foil balloons, on the other hand, are not biodegradable.

Local environmental organizations like New Jersey’s Sustainable Margate are pushing for laws to curb balloon releases, including a bill last year from the late New Jersey state Senator Jim Whelan. Monica Coffey, the chairperson of Sustainable Margate, asked Whelan to introduce the legislation after crafting successful balloon-related laws in Margate, Atlantic City, Longport, and other New Jersey towns. “I realized it would be much easier to adopt a statewide law,” she told me.

Whelan’s bill proposed placing a $500 fine on intentionally released balloons. “The release of balloons inflated with lighter-than-air gases poses a danger and nuisance to the environment, particularly to wildlife and marine animals,” the bill stated.

The Balloon Council responded almost immediately. Through the Trenton-based Princeton Public Affairs Group, which lobbies on behalf of the Council in New Jersey, it argued that Whelan’s bill would place an unfair stigma on balloons, causing customers to stop purchasing them. “We take the issues seriously, but educating retailers and consumers is the best way to go,” Dale Florio, the Council’s primary lobbyist at the Princeton Public Affairs group, said at the time. “No business and no balloon retailer wants to contribute to the harm of any creature, but to say it’s a hazard — we think that’s way overblown.”

Their swift mobilization caught Sen. Whelan off-guard. “I was surprised to find out there was a balloon lobby,” he told the CBC radio show As It Happens in June 2017.

Much of the balloon industry’s problem with the environment can be blamed on a turtle. In September 1987, Susan and Peter Hibbard, a pair of married high-school biology teachers dissected a dead, washed-up leatherback turtle in New Jersey. His determined cause of death: a balloon in his innards.

The Hibbards’ disgust for free-flying balloons had been intensifying since 1985, when a 15-foot-long sperm whale washed up on a New Jersey beach with a balloon in its stomach. Bob Schoelkopf of the Marine Mammal Stranding Center, who found the whale, believed the balloon had blocked its digestive tract, contributing to its death.

In 1986, controversy over balloon releases escalated when the Cleveland chapter of the United Way attempted to break a world record by releasing more than 1.5 million helium balloons. The results were disastrous. Hundreds of thousands of balloons landed in Lake Erie, hampering an unrelated search-and-rescue effort for two lost boaters, who were later found drowned. A local airport had to close a runway that became littered with fallen balloons. One woman claimed that her “prized Arabian horses” were injured after they were “spooked” by the release.

“I was surprised to find out there was a balloon lobby.”
New Jersey State Sen. Jim Whalen

The Hibbards channeled their long-simmering frustration into the Balloon Alert Project, a grassroots group they founded to promote legislation nationwide to curb balloon releases. They recruited schoolchildren to write letters to local representatives, pressuring states like Florida, Connecticut, California, and Texas to pass restrictive balloon laws — the first of their kind in U.S. history.

In 1990, the Hibbards proposed a bill in New Jersey to ban balloon releases statewide, enraging the balloon industry. “These misinformation reports are turning into an attack on our industry,” a spokesperson for National Association of Balloon Artists, a now-defunct precursor to the Balloon Council, told the AP at the time. “Children say, ‘Oh no, I can't take that balloon. It might kill a whale.’”

From his home in Wichita, Kansas, Dan Flynn of the Pioneer Balloon Company — one of the largest balloon manufacturers in the U.S., with more than $100 million in annual revenue — grew frustrated with how the debate was unfolding. Too much misinformation was flying around. He decided to act. He enlisted the lobbying group Princeton Public Affairs Group to help him lay the groundwork for The Balloon Council, and in 1991, he announced their humble mission: “We are committed to rekindling the public's love affair with balloons.” In part because of the Balloon Council’s efforts, the 1990 New Jersey bill failed. Since then, the Council has spent millions of dollars to quash potential balloon-release bans across the country. Through a mix of their efforts and those of local balloon vendors, the group has blocked restrictive balloon bills in New York (2011), Pennsylvania (1994), South Carolina (2011), Texas (2009), New Hampshire (2007), Washington (2017), New Jersey (1990, 2017), Maryland (2004), and elsewhere, O’Hara said.

Since the Balloon Council was founded, only one state, Virginia, has successfully passed a balloon release ban.

To understand how a little-known niche group has maintained such a tight grip on American environmental legislation, it’s instructive to look to California.

In May 2008, when California was considering an outright ban on the sale of foil balloons, the Council sprung into action. California already had a balloon law on the books — since the ‘90s, the state has required that foil balloons be attached to weights to prevent interference with power lines — and the Balloon Council believed this new bill was a step too far. They bankrolled a movement called Save Our Balloons, the website of which featured a photo of a crying baby girl beside the ominous text: “It’s true. California politicians want to pop her balloon.”

The ban, the Council claimed on SaveOurBalloons.com, would imperil 22,000 balloon-vendors jobs and lead to a $1.1 billion drop in sales. “Actually, we thought those numbers were low. We were being conservative,” O’Hara said.

Though sponsors of the California bill pointed to a 2007 study showing that balloons get stuck in power lines and cause up to $120 million in damages annually, the Balloon Council’s warnings prevailed. In September 2008, then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed the bill.

Since the Balloon Council was founded, only one state, Virginia, has successfully passed a balloon release ban.

The central dispute between balloon advocates and opponents is whether balloons actually kill animals. The Balloon Council maintains they have yet to be presented with convincing evidence that balloons have contributed to the death of a single animal, although when pressed, O’Hara did not clarify what such evidence would look like. Numerous organizations, however, including the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Association of New Jersey Environmental Commissions, and the non-profit group Save the Whales, disagree. “To say there is no impact is completely ludicrous,” Maris Sidenstecker, executive director of Save the Whales, told me. “[A balloon] doesn’t break down and it causes the animal to choke, or it plugs up the opening of their stomach.”

O’Hara says the Council’s interests are not out of step with environmental groups. “We’re concerned about the environment,” she said. “One death of anything is too many.” She said that’s why the Council focuses on education and making the public aware of their position that, though balloons should be handled with care, they pose minimal environmental danger. To this end, the Council created a so-called SpokesBalloon named Faraday, after Michael Faraday, who invented the balloon in 1824. Faraday last year toured the country, appearing at Balloon Council press conferences and posing for photos with schoolchildren during talks about balloon safety. O’Hara likens the cartoon balloon to a modern-day Smokey the Bear.

Sen. Whelan, for his part, grew tired of the Council’s argument that small-time balloon sellers would suffer if balloon regulations were passed. “They have a very effective lobbying effort, both here in New Jersey and across the country,” he told As It Happens of balloon vendors. “So I guess mom and pop are doing OK.”

In the end, Sen. Whelan’s original bill failed. He died of a heart attack in August 2017, and afterward, the bill stalled out. The New Jersey Senate Environment and Energy Committee never released it for a full debate. But local environmentalists are eagerly watching to see if the new version will prevail. “I’d love to see it pass,” N. Dini Checko, a director at the Association of New Jersey Environmental Commissions, told me. “This is not curing cancer.”

Michael Waters is a freelance writer.