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Government Controls for Laser Pointers

posted May 13, 2014, 9:55 PM by Simon Hills   [ updated May 13, 2014, 10:00 PM ]
New controls on high-power laser pointers

The Government recently introduced new laws on high-power laser pointers. These devices
are useful tools for astronomers to use in observatories or to point out things in the night sky.
If you are involved in astronomy and use a laser pointer then you should understand the new
controls and how they apply to you.

What devices are covered by the new laws?

Laser pointers are small hand-held devices that emit a tightly focused beam of light that can
be concentrated onto a very small area even over long distances. Although the total power in
the beam may be small (a few milliwatts), concentrating this power onto a tiny spot creates a
point of very high intensity.
The new laws define a high-power laser pointer as a device that:
a. in the Director-General of Health’s opinion, is of the kind commonly known as a laser
pointer; and
b. is battery operated; and
c. is designed or intended to be operated while held in the hand; and
d. produces a coherent beam of optical radiation of low divergence (i.e., the beam does
not fan out like a torch beam); and
e. has a power output of greater than 1 milliwatt (mW).
Note: the new laws DO NOT cover laser pointers that are 1 mW or less in power. Some
other laser devices are also exempt (e.g., surveying equipment).

Why were the new controls introduced?
The controls were introduced to manage the health and safety risks from high-power laser
pointers. There are two main risks from these devices.
People may not be aware of the potential harm these devices can cause and
inadvertently shine them in their own eyes or other people’s eyes.
People maliciously (or ignorantly) shine them at vehicles such as aircraft and dazzle the
pilot. Even when shone from several hundred meters away high-power laser pointers can
dazzle and cause temporary flash blindness. Distracting or dazzling a pilot in this way for
instance, is a serious aviation safety risk, particularly during critical phases of flight such
as during critical phases of flight such as during take-off and/or landing. Car drivers,
cyclists, and ship crews are also at risk if dazzled by high-power laser pointers.

What do the laws do?
The new controls cover the importation, sale/supply and acquisition of high-power laser
pointers (devices that have a power of greater than 1 milliwatt (mW)). In summary:
The Custom Import Prohibition (High-power Laser Pointers) Order 2013 restricts the
importation of high-power laser pointers to those people who have obtained authorisation
to import them from the Director-General of Health.
The Health (High-power Laser Pointers) Regulations 2013 restrict the sale/supply of highpower
laser pointers to those who are authorised suppliers and also restrict the
acquisition of such devices to those who are authorised recipients.
To become an authorised importer, supplier or recipient of a high-power laser pointer most
people need to apply to the Director-General of Health using an application form available on
the Ministry of Health’s website (there are some exceptions as described below).
What do the new laws mean for astronomy societies and their members?
Astronomy societies and their members DO NOT have to get permission to supply or
acquire high-power laser pointers because the government recognises that they have a
legitimate use for such devices. (Note that “supply” means both “sell” and “give for free”.)
Astronomy societies and their members still need to apply for permission to import them,
however.
Under the new controls the Director-General has declared that certain classes of people are
approved suppliers or recipients. This means they are exempted from having to specifically
apply for permission to acquire or supply such devices. Astronomy societies and their
members are one of the few such approved classes of people (other approved classes
include those who use laser pointers for scientific, research, or industrial purposes).
The ability to have such approved classes of persons recognises that some people have
legitimate uses for such devices, will better understand their risks, take appropriate
precautions to use and store devices safely, and will be unlikely to misuse their laser
pointers (i.e., they will not shine them at aircraft or intentionally shine them at people).

The new controls do have some impacts on astronomy societies and their members. The
key ones are noted below:

If you want to import any high-power laser pointer you will need to complete an
application form, send it to the Ministry of Health, and receive an authorisation to import.
You need to obtain import consent BEFORE you import the device (otherwise it will likely
be seized by Customs and you will have to seek a review of seizure).

You also need to be careful that you do not supply any high-power laser pointer to any
person who is not authorised to acquire one. While you are entitled to supply a device to
other members of an astronomy society (who are also entitled to receive them without
seeking permission), you cannot automatically supply a high-power laser pointer to
anyone. For example, you cannot simply give or sell your high-power laser pointer to any
member of the public if they have not received an authorisation from the Ministry of
Health or are part of an approved class.

The Regulations contain offences and penalties. For example, supplying a device to
another person without having reasonable grounds to believe that the person is
authorised to receive it is a breach of the Regulations, and you will be liable to pay a fine.
If you wish to buy a high-power laser pointer from a New Zealand-based supplier, you will
need to provide them some proof that you belong to an approved class of persons. For
example, you could show them a letter from your astronomy Society, on headed paper,
confirming that you are a bona fide member.

Are any other controls on laser pointers being considered?


Yes. The controls mentioned above DO NOT cover possession of laser pointers. That is,
people do not have to get any authorisation to possess laser pointers that they already own.
However, a proposed law change is currently being considered by Parliament. The
Summary Offences (Possession of Hand-held Lasers) Amendment Bill is proposing to make
it an offence to be in possession of a high-power laser pointer in a public place without
having a reasonable excuse. A similar offence currently exists for knives.
Even if this proposed law change is passed by Parliament then astronomers are unlikely to
be adversely impacted. Being an approved class of person, entitled to acquire high-power
laser pointers under the regulations noted above, and having a legitimate reason to have a
laser pointer will provide a ‘reasonable excuse’ (unless the devices are being misused).
Ultimately, however, Parliament will decide whether the Bill is passed into law.

Where do I get more information?

More information about laser pointers, the new controls and their implications for you, and
how to apply for authorisation is available on the Ministry of Health’s website:
http://www.health.govt.nz/our-work/environmental-health/high-power-laser-pointers
You can also email any questions on the new controls to laserpointers@moh.govt.nz
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