Following the lead of the cities of Sarasota and Venice, the Sarasota County Commission on Tuesday approved a staff recommendation to prepare an ordinance to ban smoking on county beaches and in county parks.
The legislative action is enabled by House Bill 105, which was signed into law in 2022 and permits local jurisdictions to ban smoking on public beaches and in parks. The bill does not apply to unfiltered cigars. The Sarasota City Commission banned smoking on beaches last fall except in designated smoking areas.
In a 3-1 vote with Commissioner Mike Moran opposed, staff was directed to draw up the ordinance and to contact other jurisdictions that have already approved similar bans to learn about effective enforcement measures.
Enforcement was one of two primary objections raised by Moran during a discussion before the vote.
“I have great hesitation when the government tries to get involved in controlling people's behaviors,” Moran said. “There's an element of personal accountability on the one side of controlling people's behaviors. I get it with the youth parks and where kids are around, and I get it that you have kids on a beach. I just feel a real slippery slope there of government intrusion into people's lives.”
Commissioner Mark Smith took the opposite position.
“I believe the government's role is to protect us from ourselves on occasion. That’s why we have speed limits, so I don't have a problem with prohibiting smoking,” Smith said. “We prohibit it in restaurants. The litter is huge on Siesta Key and every other beach and beach access. I believe it's important for the health of our children that we keep it out of parks and the beaches and just for a cleaner environment, so I'm strongly in favor.”
Commission Chairman Ron Cutsinger struck a more conciliatory tone while coming down in favor of a smoking ban.
“I hear you Commissioner Moran and I agree that we have to be careful about rights, and in someone's home or in a private area, I understand that. But out in public where it affects others, I think we haven't figured out how those boundaries come into play,” Cutsinger said. “I have to tell you when someone's smoking near me, I have to get away from it because it just takes over the whole area. I am going to support this because I believe it makes the most sense and I think just the public has the right to visit their beaches and other areas without the issue of smoke.”
Litter is a secondary problem, with the county’s Parks, Recreation and Natural Resources reporting thousands of cigarette butts collected from the beach sand.
Moran also raised questions about enforcement, suggesting that if he asked the sheriff he’d hear his deputies have more important things to do than become the smoking police, and that in order to do that he’d need to hire several more deputies for that duty alone.
Moran asked Parks, Recreation and Natural Resources Director Nicole Rissler if members of her staff would be willing to be deputized to carry out enforcement.
“We'd have to look into that further,” she said. “County staff does not have the ability to enforce. That falls to law enforcement and I'm not knowledgeable enough of what that would take to change that and provide that ability to staff, so we'd have to look into that further.”
Cutsinger said he would expect the enforcement issue to be mitigated by a robust education campaign including ubiquitous signage informing beachgoers that smoking is not allowed by law. Awareness and public pressure, he added, will be a necessary element in enforcement.
“I think a lot of the enforcement will come as people become more aware of it,” Cutsinger said. “We will have voluntary compliance and peer pressure, but beyond that maybe we won't get 100% enforcement, but we'll certainly cut down on the amount of smoking.”
Moran said he was concerned about confrontations between beachgoers over the smoking ban or between smokers and non-law enforcement personnel. He asked County Administrator Jonathan Lewis if a proposed ordinance can contain punitive elements strong enough to discourage smoking.
“Maybe we put something in that a person could be trespassed from the property, and there are other avenues to look at,” Lewis said. “Just picking a high number out of the air, I don't know if we could do a $500 littering fine, but we can vet all that and bring it back to you. Staff may be out there and they'll use education. The problem is when somebody else comes to the county staff and says you go stop them from doing that. Then those things can get complicated.”
There was no time frame set for the ordinance to appear before the commission.
Andrew Warfield is the Sarasota Observer city reporter. He is a four-decade veteran of print media. A Florida native, he has spent most of his career in the Carolinas as a writer and editor, nearly a decade as co-founder and editor of a community newspaper in Mecklenburg County, North Carolina.