The new smoking ban frontier: removing butts from beaches

A Sarasota County ban on smoking at the beach was overturned in court, so now state legislators are looking to ban it statewide The dispute is about litter, not second-hand smoke.
A cigarette butt in the sand on Friday in Treasure Island. State Sen. Joe Gruters, R-Sarasota, has submitted legislation for the 2019 session that would ban smoking on Florida’s public beaches.
A cigarette butt in the sand on Friday in Treasure Island. State Sen. Joe Gruters, R-Sarasota, has submitted legislation for the 2019 session that would ban smoking on Florida’s public beaches.
Published Jan. 14, 2019

Smokers in Florida can't light up in restaurants, stores, offices and government buildings. Now one Florida state senator wants to add another location to the no-smoking list: the state's beaches.

Now that indoor smoking bans have largely succeeded, anti-tobacco forces are turning their attention to outdoor spots such as beaches and parks. But their argument is no longer focused on the health effects of second-hand smoke. Instead, measures like SB 218 by Sen. Joe Gruters, R-Sarasota, are about eliminating litter — getting butts off beaches.

"To me this is like an easy thing to support," said Stephen Leatherman, a Florida International University coastal geology professor known as "Dr. Beach" for his annual ranking of the world's best beaches. "Cigarette butts are the number one type of litter on beaches, by volume. They are disgusting."

They're also hard to get rid of. Beach sweepers that clean up litter on public beaches around the state can't use screens small enough to catch cigarette butts, so they just fall back into the sand or, in some cases, are flung hither and yon by the sweeping machine, Leatherman said.

Worse, the filters are made of cellulose acetate, a type of plastic that will not begin to break down for years. So kids building sand castles will continue finding them for decades, and occasionally sticking them in their mouths, Leatherman said.

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So Leatherman is a big fan of Gruters' bill, which says flat-out, "It is unlawful for any person to smoke tobacco on a public beach."

Not even the tobacco industry will stick up for the right to scatter butts on a beach — industry spokesmen did not return phone calls seeking comment on Gruters' bill. It would allow police officers to issue citations that carry a fine of up to $25 or a penalty of 10 hours of community service.

So far, just a few states have banned smoking across all public beaches.

Maine did in 2009. Hawaii banned smoking at its state-owned beaches in 2015. New Jersey followed suit in 2018. That one was not without a struggle. Former Gov. Chris Christie vetoed the measure twice, but his successor, Phil Murphy, signed it into law.

Some towns also have banned beach smoking, including recently Gulf Shores, Ala.

It's not about popularity. Smoking is far less popular now than it had been in years past. In 2005, 20 percent of all adults smoked. Now it's down to 15 percent. Instead, the argument against butt bans boils down to a question of government overreach.

RELATED COVERAGE: In one Florida town, landowners don't even want turtles using their beaches.

Party affiliation doesn't matter on this issue. Repeated attempts at banning smoking on California's beaches ran into opposition from both Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown. When Brown vetoed the legislation in 2017, he said, "If people can't smoke even on a deserted beach, where can they? There must be some limit to the coercive power of government."

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Gruters did not respond to requests for comment, but others in his hometown explained that his bill is the latest development in a longrunning battle over butts at Sarasota County's beaches.

The ban was the idea of an organization called Keep Sarasota Beautiful, which coordinates volunteers for public beautification projects, including an annual beach cleanup. After one such cleanup yielded seven pounds of cigarette butts, the organization asked county officials to do something about it. The proposal drew support from park volunteers, law enforcement, even a group of high school students who wrote 287 letters urging its passage.

So in 2007, the Sarasota County Commission voted 4-1 to impose a ban on smoking at Siesta Key and other county-owned beaches. Violators would be fined $97.

"No more smoking Kools in the cool Gulf breezes. No more Marlboros and manatee watching, or Camels and castle building in the sand," the Sarasota Herald-Tribune reported.

The ordinance was "very gently enforced," said Virginia J. Haley of Visit Sarasota County, a tourism organization that strongly supported the ban not just because of the litter but also because of the occasional fights that would break out between smokers and non-smokers vying for space on the same beach. "I don't know if any citations were actually handed out."

Instead, she said, non-smokers would simply point to the signs the county posted and tell smokers, "Oh, you may not have seen the sign, but you're not allowed to do that here." That was usually all that was required, Haley said.

But then the American Civil Liberties Union jumped in with a lawsuit. The organization accused Sarasota County of attempting to punish homeless people, who often hung out at Sarasota County's beaches but had no convenient way to dispose of their trash. The rights organization argued in court that state law said only the Legislature could regulate smoking, and in 2013 a judge agreed.

Since then, butt-ban fans have tried to get legislation passed that would allow Sarasota County to bring back its smoking prohibition, so far with no luck. The last such attempt, said Haley, didn't even make it out of committee.

Gruters' bill may face the same fate, although state Rep. Thad Altman, R-Indian Harbour Beach, just filed a companion bill in the House, HB 237. On the other hand, an ACLU representative said the organization is not opposed to a statewide ban unless it somehow targets one religious, racial or socioeconomic group.

If it passes both houses and is signed into law by Gov. Ron DeSantis, the ban would take effect in July.

Senior news researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Contact Craig Pittman at Follow @craigtimes.

Correction: Joe Gruters, a state senator from Sarasota, has filed a bill that would prohibit smoking on Florida public beaches. An earlier version of this story gave an incorrect name.