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2 Tampa Bay mayors have different opinions on beachside smoking bans

A new law allows local governments to restrict the smoking of cigarettes at public beaches
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Posted at 7:13 AM, Jul 07, 2022
and last updated 2022-07-07 07:49:58-04

PINELLAS COUNTY, Fla. — On a muggy July morning, as volunteers carefully combed the white sand of Madeira Beach during a routine litter clean-up, the remains of cigarette butts were hard to avoid. Some appeared freshly discarded. Others were faded, stripped of their outer layer of paper, and worn down by the effects of sand and sun.

As the pile of used cigarettes grew larger by the minute, it was no surprise to City of Madeira Beach Mayor John Hendricks who watched, barefoot, as eager volunteers sorted the discarded butts into a clear plastic tube.

“Cigarette butts are terrible,” he said. “We find them all over. I’ve been out picking up trash and literally have gotten half a five-gallon bucket almost exclusively of cigarette butts.”

According to National Geographic, the fibrous filter inside a cigarette butt breaks down during the course of years into minuscule pieces of plastic, known as microplastics. Cigarette butts are the number one piece of litter found on Florida beaches, according to the Ocean Conservancy.

Now, coastal communities in Florida have a new tool to combat the frequent source of ocean pollution. A state law that took effect on July 1 will allow municipalities and local governments to restrict the smoking of cigarettes “within the boundaries of any public beaches and public parks that they own.”

Hendricks is ready to enact such a restriction in Madeira Beach and hopes to have such a restriction in place within the next few months.

“We’ll be discussing it at our next workshop. It’s something I’m in favor of. I would love to see us do away with filtered cigarettes,” he said. “We discussed it a little bit at the Big C — the Barrier Islands Governmental Council — at our last meeting. I imagine that most all of the beach communities along the barrier islands will be putting in the same policy regarding cigarettes and smoking on the beach.”

To Hendricks, consistency is key. He said neighboring beaches should adopt identical restrictions to limit the confusion of beach-goers, who often stroll down the sand from one beach community to another.

"If you don’t have consistent ordinances, then people don’t know what the laws are from one city to the next," Hendricks said.

Gulfport Mayor Sam Henderson, however, isn't ready to enact a cigarette smoking restriction at his city's municipal beach and won’t recommend his council pursue such an ordinance.

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Gulfport

“I don’t think it’s legislation that’s going to have any kind of real impact,” he said.

Though he said maintaining a clean beach is in Gulfport's best interest, his concern is that a beachside cigarette smoking ban would be hard to enforce and serve little good. Henderson points out that the state prevents municipalities from regulating other sources of ocean pollution like plastic bags and straws.

“I feel like it’s really just a very small band-aid over what is a much larger environmental wound,” he said. “This really just feels like a scrap being thrown as opposed to meaningful legislation that groups like Ocean Conservancy and others have been asking for for a very long time.”

But to J.P. Brooker, the director of Florida Conservation for Ocean Conservancy, who happens to live in Gulfport, the beach smoking law is a worthy tool and is enforceable.

“Municipalities will have the ability to enforce via issuing tickets, which can be capped to a certain amount to people who are found littering beaches with cigarette butts, but you can also create designated areas for smoking that are away from the beach or near the beach that will preclude the cigarette butts from ultimately making their way into the sand,” he said.

Brooker hopes beach communities will enact cigarette smoking restrictions from Pensacola Beach to Jacksonville Beach, and Key West to Tampa Bay.

“We think the cigarette butt ordinance is a step in the right direction,” he said. “Cigarette butts are fundamentally little pieces of plastic, and we want plastic off the beach.”

Under the new law, the smoking of unfiltered cigars is exempt from restriction.

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