State law prohibits the county from enforcing a smoking ban on Siesta Key Beach, but residents are still working to curb the impacts of tobacco.
If Siesta Key Beach is going to be named the No. 1 beach in the country again, it’s probably going to have to kick its smoking habit.
Stephen Leatherman, better known as Dr. Beach, appeared at the Dec. 1 Siesta Key Association meeting and announced he would be making some changes to his annual ranking of the nation’s top 10 beaches. One change: He’s allowing beaches that have previously been ranked No. 1 to compete for the top spot again.
That means Siesta Key Beach could once again get the same attention it got in 2011, when Leatherman named it the No. 1 beach in the country.
There is a hurdle, though. In addition to reopening the No. 1 spot, Leatherman is creating a series of “extra credit” categories in addition to the 50 criteria he uses to evaluate beaches. One of the new factors that will be taken into consideration is whether a beach prohibits smoking.
Right now, smoking is allowed on Siesta Key Beach. It’s not for a lack of trying from Siesta Key residents, who have lobbied to change the regulations — although they believe it’s an uphill challenge.
Catherine Luckner, a member of the Siesta Key Association board of directors, recalls a conversation she had a few years ago with then-state Rep. Doug Holder.
“He made it really clear that, in the Legislature, there was no will to pursue that,” Luckner said. “It had a lot to do with the tobacco lobby.”
“He made it really clear that, in the Legislature, there was no will to pursue that.” — Catherine Luckner
Why is this a state issue? Until 2013, the county did prohibit smoking on Siesta Key Beach. That changed following a 2012 case regarding the city of Sarasota’s smoking restrictions in public parks, which highlighted a Florida law that “expressly pre-empts regulation of smoking to the state and supersedes any municipal or county ordinance.”
In other words, the county can’t regulate smoking on the beach without the state’s consent.
After the Siesta smoking ban was overturned, the county has attempted to regain local authority to prohibit smoking. Those efforts have been unsuccessful, but the issue remains a legislative priority for the county. Still, no change appears imminent.
“There is not currently any proposed legislation filed for the 2017 legislative session, but we certainly will advocate for any proposed measures that would support providing the county the authority to regulate smoking on public beaches,” Rob Lewis, the county’s director of community and intergovernmental relations, said in a statement.
Even without the state, residents hope to affect some change. Kelli Pond, a health educator with the Florida Department of Health in Sarasota County, spoke at Thursday’s SKA meeting about the local Tobacco Free Partnership program’s effort to address the impacts of smoking.
She said Manatee and Hillsborough counties have been able to curb smoking waste by about 50%, and said the beach could be an initial area of emphasis for a similar effort in Sarasota County.
“We’re looking to try to reduce the tobacco litter here, maybe specifically on Siesta Beach first,” Pond said.
“We’re looking to try to reduce the tobacco litter here, maybe specifically on Siesta Beach first.” — Kelli Pond
Luckner said it’s difficult for authorities to identify individuals responsible for tobacco litter because they must be caught in the act. To effectively discourage littering through enforcement would demand an intense focus on that specific issue, she said.
“I don’t know if we want to have that kind of oversight,” Luckner said. “It’s so hard to do, and there are so many other things people are focused on the beach.”
As the search for short-term solutions continues, Luckner still believes the optimal conclusion is to have smoking prohibited completely.
“It’s better to have a location as an all-or-nothing area than to try to monitor everybody,” she said.
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