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WINNIPEG, Manitoba (Reuters) - Kathleen Flockton couldn't believe her eyes when she saw cigarette lighters decorated with Sesame Street's Elmo and other children's characters by the check-out at her local drug store.
"I couldn't really understand why an adult would want a Cookie Monster lighter," said Flockton, a mother of three.
So she bought some to show a firefighter friend who teaches kids about the dangers of fire, and told a local television station, unleashing a firestorm of disgust in a city where fires started by children are a common problem.
"You combine the natural curiosity of children, and you throw that design at them, sitting on a coffee table, you know that it's going to be an attraction, said Sgt. Derrick Todoruk of the Winnipeg police department's arson strike force.
"It's like putting a picture of Big Bird on a shotgun," Todoruk said. "It makes no sense."
Firefighters in the city's poorest neighborhoods are called each night to fires in garbage bins or garages said Alex Forrest, president of the firefighters' union.
"On a weekend, it can almost be on a hourly basis," said Forrest, adding that kids as young as six have been caught.
Firebugs too young for the court system are sent, with their families, to an education program run by the fire department to encourage parental supervision.
"We're being overwhelmed by sheer numbers," Forrest said, noting there are currently more than 120 kids in the program.
The firefighters want governments to ban lighters that appeal to kids, and ensure all lighters are placed behind store counters to make them harder for children to steal, he said.
Officials were not available for comment on Friday from Shoppers Drug Mart, Canada's largest pharmacy chain, where the lighters were found, nor from Sesame Workshop, which licenses products with the popular Muppets.
Sesame Workshop told CanWest television news that the use of its characters on the lighters was not authorized, and that its legal department was investigating.
Shoppers Drug Mart said the lighters came from a Winnipeg supplier and were being removed from shelves, CanWest said.
Reporting by Roberta Rampton; editing by Rob Wilson