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No butts about it: local governments set to take up beach smoking ban

With enabling legislation going into effect last week, city and county governments are poised to implement smoking bans on public beaches

Participants in Friday's beach smoking ban event ceremoniously place giant cigarette butts in a trash bag, illustrating the state's enabling legislation allowing localities to prohibit smoking on the beach. (Courtesy photo)
Participants in Friday's beach smoking ban event ceremoniously place giant cigarette butts in a trash bag, illustrating the state's enabling legislation allowing localities to prohibit smoking on the beach. (Courtesy photo)
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Sarasota’s decade-long quest to eliminate smoking — and the proliferation of cigarette butts — from its beaches may finally meet success with a state law that allows local governments to institute such bans that went into effect July 1.

The enabling legislation, House Bill 105, does not apply to cigars.

Marking the occasion at Lido Beach last week, a news conference with bill sponsor Sen. Joe Gruters of Sarasota (R-District 23) and advocates of the bill took place where the smoking ban movement began. In 2013, that effort was thwarted when a judge sided with the American Civil Liberties Union against Sarasota County, which has instituted a smoking ban smoking on Siesta Key Beach.

The county legislation followed a city ordinance adopted in 2008 to prohibit smoking on public beaches and public beach parks, parks that are adjacent to the beach. 

Gruters was joined by Director of Florida Conservation for Ocean Conservancy J.P. Brooker and Stephen “Dr. Beach" Leatherman, a recognized expert in creating the ratings to rank the world’s best beaches. Leatherman previously rated Sarasota County beaches among the best in the country, but Gruters suggested the wrong butts on the beach have worked against the local beaches in recent years.

State Sen. Joe Gruters of Sarasota sponsored the bill signed into law last week that allows local governments to ban smoking on beaches. (Andrew Warfield)
State Sen. Joe Gruters of Sarasota sponsored the bill signed into law last week that allows local governments to ban smoking on beaches. (Andrew Warfield)

“I'm hoping that Dr. Beach will give us those bonus points finally, and Lido Beach and Siesta Key Beach, which are probably two of the nicest beaches in the whole world and which I represent, will be back in the top five and maybe number one,” Gruters said.

That will first require codification of the ban by local governments. Gruters indicated a forthcoming ban by the city is a forgone conclusion.

Commissioner Jen Ahearn-Koch, who attended the event, echoed that sentiment.

“I'm so thrilled that we finally have the ability in the city of Sarasota — and the rest of the cities and Florida have this ability now that that pre-emption is gone — to regulate cigarettes and smoking on our beaches and in our parks,” Ahearn-Koch said.

Sarasota Mayor Eric Arroyo, who was not in attendance, foreshadowed the direction commissioners may take.

“It will be interesting to see what collective action the commission takes,” Arroyo said. “There is a community desire to take action to mitigate the trash that is being carelessly disposed of at our beaches, which often comes in the shape of cigarettes.”

In addition to the city of Sarasota, Longboat Key is likely to proceed with a cigarette ban in its parks and beaches in September, signaling a desire to consider an ordinance on its first meeting in September following town commissioners' two and half month summer break. Initially, town leaders intended to bring up the possibility of such a town rule in September, but commissioners on July 1 urged Town Manager Tom Harmer to move ahead with production of an ordinance over the summer.

 There is no word yet on if or when the Sarasota County Commission will take up the matter.

The town of Indian Harbour Beach in Brevard County had an ordinance ready to approve on June 28, becoming the first municipality in the state to approve a cigarette ban once the state's enabling legislation became law. 

During Tuesday's Sarasota City Commission Meeting, City Attorney Robert Fournier sought direction from regarding any local action, reminding them of differences between the city and county ordinances prior to being struck down in court. 

"The city did not act to prohibit smoking in parks. The county did, but only when youth athletic organized events were going on," Fournier said. "So the question right now is, if you want to address this, would you prefer to wait and see what Sarasota County does? Or, if you know now that you either do not want to regulate or that you don't, I could prepare an ordinance accordingly to be brought back."

Consensus among the commissioners, minus the absent Hagen Brody, was to not wait.

"I would say move as swiftly as possible," Ahearn-Koch said of a beach smoking ban. "Then I guess it would have to be a separate one for parks."

"I think you might want to do it separately," Fournier replied.

Negative health impacts

According to Ocean Conservancy, cigarette butts have been the most commonly found litter on Florida beaches during the organization’s annual Coastal Cleanup for the past 31 years. The butts are made of tightly packed plastic fibers that erode into smaller bits, which accumulate in fish and other organisms, adversely impacting sea life health and reproductivity as well as human health when consuming the affected fish.

Among the reasons for the cigar exemption: typically cigars don't have filters. 

“Ocean Conservancy stood up and advocated for this very important law, and today we are beyond thrilled to see it officially go into effect,” Brooker said. “For too long, cigarette butts have hurt our environment and Florida's beaches.”

During his remarks, Leatherman, who lobbied lawmakers in Tallahassee on behalf of the bill, extolled the success experienced by Hawaii when it moved to ban beach smoking.

Stephen "Dr. Beach" Leatherman, a nationally recognized beach ranking expert, helped lobby for the beach smoking ban legislation. ( Andrew Warfield)

“People said, ‘Oh, it can't happen. Waikiki Beach is a world-famous beach. People won’t come here and cause a dip in tourism,’” he said. “It had no effect on tourism. In fact, people are so glad there are not cigarette butts to litter the beach make it unattractive.

“We’ve got so many great beaches in Florida, and Hawaii has been beating out Florida with the number of top 10 beaches, and that can’t be right. We’ve got 825 miles of great, wide, sandy beaches while Hawaii has something like 100 miles, so I think it's time for now for more Florida beaches to make the list.”

Two Florida beaches did make Leatherman’s top 10 list for 2022, Caladesi Island State Park in Dunedin/Clearwater is ranked second, and St. George Island State Park in the panhandle is fourth.

Enacting a ban here is one thing. Enforcing it is another. Discussions among Sarasota city staff and commissioners may include options for smokers, such as a designated smoking area well away from the shore.

“Now comes how do local governments tackle this issue?” Gruters said. “We're hoping that through education campaign, hopefully by setting the example early on in by widespread the PR campaign at the local level that we'll be able to deal with some of those issues, but there's no question law enforcement has to have a buy-in.

“We've talked with law enforcement and local communities, and the overwhelming response from local governments is they wanted to have the ability to do this, and they thought they can manage the flip-side once it actually happens.”