ST. PETERSBURG — Patricia DePlasco brought a clear tube the size of a poster case filled with cigarette butts. They’d been collected from a robot that cleaned just one strip, two inches deep and as wide as a golf cart, of 16 beaches in Pinellas County.
DePlasco, the executive director of Keep Pinellas Beautiful, told the St. Petersburg City Council’s Health, Energy, Resilience and Sustainability Committee that between 4.5 and 5 trillion cigarette butts are littered each year around the world out of 6.5 trillion purchased — meaning roughly 75% of cigarette butts are not properly disposed of.
She went on: Cigarette butts account for 40% of the waste recovered in cities and on beaches in international clean-up campaigns, according to The Ocean Conservancy. They take about 150 years to decompose while releasing carcinogens.
The proposed smoking ban in St. Petersburg parks and beaches aims to curb such litter. The draft ordinance approved unanimously Thursday by the committee will go before the full City Council in September. The rule would go immediately into effect, but wouldn’t be enforced until Jan. 1, 2023.
“Obviously the numbers are right in front of me to prove that there is a problem,” DePlasco said. “And it’s unfortunate that smokers can’t put their butts where they belong.”
The Florida Legislature previously preempted local governments from prohibiting smoking. But that changed this summer with the passage of House Bill 105, which allowed counties and municipalities to further restrict smoking on public beaches and in parks under certain circumstances. Unfiltered cigars are exempted from the ban because they don’t have plastic filters.
St. Petersburg’s proposal would prohibit smoking in all areas of public beaches and public parks within the city. A violation of the ordinance, enforced by police, would result in a municipal ordinance violation that could result in a fine of up to $500. The Sixth Judicial Circuit of Pasco and Pinellas counties defines the minimum penalty as a $93 fine.
Smokeless tobacco and electronic cigarettes, often referred to as vaping, have been banned at parks and athletic facilities including Tropicana Field since 2017.
Council member Lisset Hanewicz noted the proposal was good for wildlife as well. Hanewicz, a former federal prosecutor, said Florida was the first state to sue tobacco companies in the 1990s for health costs.
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“Some people may say, ‘Oh, is this overreach?’” she said. “You know, we regulate smoking, if it is indoors, and it’s been happening for a long time.”
Council member Ed Montanari said the proposal was long overdue. He said he worried about children, like his own young grandchildren, picking up trash and putting it in their mouths.
“This is just one of many pet peeves that I have when you see tobacco butts just laying around,” he said. “I think some people don’t think it’s litter. And it is.”
Council member Richie Floyd said he was grateful for the presentation from DePlasco and Keep Pinellas Beautiful.
“I’m not super excited to go around and like tell people what to do,” he said. “But it’s obvious from statistics you’ve provided that people are not throwing their cigarette butts away ... and it’s gotten to be a problem.”
The 90 or so days between making the proposed ordinance a rule and enforcing the ban allows enough time for an education and awareness campaign and for the city’s parks department to put up signage, said City Council chairperson Gina Driscoll, who sponsored the proposal.
City Administrator Rob Gerdes said the administration is supportive of the ban and agreed with the proposed timeline. So did Mike Jefferis, who serves as the leisure services administrator in the mayor’s cabinet.
“We really do think that we will be changing culture and some norms have been in place for many, many years,” Jefferis said.