Clearwater bans smoking and vaping on beaches, parks

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CLEARWATER — Smoking and vaping is now banned within the city’s parks and on the sand at Clearwater Beach in an effort to protect public health and curb one of the most toxic forms of litter: cigarette butts.

The City Council unanimously passed the ordinance on Thursday with the caveat that it will focus on education and avoid punishing violators of the civil infraction.

Interim police Chief Michael Walek said his department will erect signs explaining the rule, pass out educational literature for visitors at hotels and restaurants and launch a social media campaign.

“The priority is that education, addressing the quality-of-life issues and getting to that level (of writing citations) if we don’t get that cooperation from someone,” Walek said. “But it will take some time to get that message across to everybody by using our various platforms.”

The ban is one of several emerging around Florida following a change in state law last year that allowed cities and counties to regulate smoking on beaches and parks, with the exception of cigars.

St. Petersburg passed a smoking ban in October. The Pinellas County Commission is expected to consider a ban for its beaches and parks in July, according to Parks and Conservation Resources director Paul Cozzie.

Some City Council members struggled with the idea of a ban for the unwelcoming connotation it could bring to the nation’s top-rated beach, which attracts international tourists. During a work session discussion on Monday, Mayor Brian Aungst Sr. and council member Lina Teixeira asked whether the city could create designated smoking areas.

“If we’re just going to ban, I don’t see how it’s going to change behavior,” Teixeira said on Thursday.

But Walek explained designated areas would be logistically too difficult for an expansive beach. Because smoking will still be allowed beyond the sand, like on sidewalks and the Beach Walk promenade, Walek said cigarette receptacles will be added to help with disposal.

Cigarette butts are among the most common form of ocean litter, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Because the fibers in cigarette filters don’t degrade, one filter can account for thousands of microplastics.

Keep Pinellas Beautiful executive director Patricia DePlasco said while she supports a ban, its success will depend on the quality of the education campaign that comes with it. She said many might not know the impact they are having on wildlife or the waterways when they toss a cigarette butt on the sand.

Her organization hands out pocket ashtrays and educates about the toxicity of the litter.

“There’s a ban on liquor on the beach, but does that stop it?” DePlasco said. “It’s complicated because it’s a behavior that people need to change.”

St. Petersburg’s ban went into effect in January. Community enrichment administrator Mike Jefferis, who oversees the city’s parks, said his team, the police department and Keep Pinellas Beautiful have distributed hundreds of flyers and handouts to spread awareness about the ban.

He said the city is still in the process of changing over 400 park signs to reflect the new rule. Jefferis did not have a tally of how many warnings or violations have been issued.

Sheri Heilman, a Clearwater Beach restaurateur and founder of Ocean Allies, a nonprofit that helps businesses make environmental changes, said Clearwater’s educational effort must be about stopping cigarette butt litter everywhere, not just on the sand.

If people can’t smoke on the beach and more cigarette butts are tossed on sidewalks instead, they will still ultimately end up in the sand or water, she said.

“We have to change everybody’s behavior, we have to change their attitude,” Heilman said. “But we’re not going to do that by saying no, no, no, we have a ban.”

Staff writer Colleen Wright contributed to this report.