Sarasota officials, Dr. Beach celebrate new law allowing local governments to ban beach smoking

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Stephen Leatherman, aka Dr. Beach, adresses the press on Friday to celebrate the passage of a state law that allows local governments to regulate smoking on Florida beaches.
Stephen Leatherman, aka Dr. Beach, adresses the press on Friday to celebrate the passage of a state law that allows local governments to regulate smoking on Florida beaches.

Friday marked the start of a new era for local control of smoking on Florida beaches.

SB 224 and HB 105, which give local governments the authority to regulate smoking at beaches, went into effect Friday, and a press conference was hosted by Ocean Conservancy at Lido Key Beach at noon.

Republican state Sen. Joe Gruters was on hand, along with Stephen Leatherman, also known as “Dr. Beach." Gruters sponsored the Senate bill, while Republican state Rep. Randy Fine, who was not present, sponsored the House bill.

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“This has been a long time coming,” Gruters said. “Almost 10 years [ago], if you remember, the city of Sarasota is the one who banned smoking, had the ACLU challenge it, and remove that law, because only the state could dictate what happens with tobacco regulation in the state of Florida.”

Gruters said that since that 2017 ruling, which sided with the ACLU and said that local governments are unable to regulate outdoor smoking, multiple versions of the final bill were proposed. Last week, after the final version passed the Florida House and Senate, Governor Ron DeSantis signed the bill, dubbed the Florida Clean Air Act, into law.

Gruters said that keeping beaches clean has always been the focus.

“There’s nothing more disgusting when you put your hand in the sand, and you pull it out, and all of a sudden you feel that cigarette butt. Especially when your kids are playing in the sand, we want to make sure we get the right butts on the beach,” Gruters said jokingly.

Leatherman, who has ranked beaches around the world for over three decades and is an advocate of smoking bans at beaches, was encouraged by the new law, and hopes local governments throughout Florida take advantage of the opportunity.

Leatherman expressed hope for progress to be made on a smoking ban at state parks.

“The first beach to do this was Hanauma Bay Beach in Oahu, Hawaii,” Leatherman said. “And the reason they did it there was because, if you’ve been there, it’s for snorkeling, all those tropical fish, and the fish are eating those cigarette butts.”

Leatherman said that since that ban, tourism in Oahu has not declined “one bit” and that the safety of children, birds and sea turtles has improved.

From left: J.P. Brooker, director of Florida Conservation at Ocean Conservancy; Stephen Leatherman, aka Dr. Beach; State Sen. Joe Gruters hold mock cigarette butts to celebrate a new law allowing local governments to ban smoking on Florida beaches.
From left: J.P. Brooker, director of Florida Conservation at Ocean Conservancy; Stephen Leatherman, aka Dr. Beach; State Sen. Joe Gruters hold mock cigarette butts to celebrate a new law allowing local governments to ban smoking on Florida beaches.

According to a press release from Ocean Conservancy, cigarette butts have been the most frequently found item on Florida beaches during the last 31 years of the nonprofit’s annual International Coastal Cleanup. Ocean Conservancy research also shows that cigarette butts are the fourth most harmful type of plastic to marine life, as they are made up of tightly-packed fibers that erode easily.

Gruters noted that if local governments decide to implement smoking bans, beach goers will not have to deal with the effects of second-hand smoking. Plus, limiting the amount of cigarette butts left on the beach will benefit wildlife and residents alike, according to J.P. Brooker, director of Florida Conservation at Ocean Conservancy.

“This not only impacts human health and reproductivity, but it can also impact animal health and reproductivity,” Brooker said. “And it can impact human health when people consume sick fish, when the plastics enter the environment.”

“Well here’s the deal,” said Gruters when asked whether a ban would infringe on smoker’s rights. “I think the rights of average, everyday Americans, and our visitors who are coming from across the seas, visiting our beaches, I think their rights of having quiet enjoyment on the beach is infringed when they have to deal with second-hand smoke.”

Gruters said that when dialogue began, the bill would initially be a blanket ban on smoking at Florida beaches. But now, local governments are empowered to “regulate it how they see fit, for the best for their community.”

Also on hand was Jen Ahearn-Koch, former City of Sarasota mayor and current city commissioner, who said that she was “so thrilled that we finally have the ability in the city of Sarasota to regulate at the local level and the rest of the cities in Florida have this ability.”

Currently, Sarasota has no restrictions on smoking at its beaches. But Ahearn-Koch said that City Attorney Robert Fournier will bring the issue to the city commission’s attention at its upcoming Tuesday meeting, whereby “the city commission will then set direction about how we’re gonna go about adopting an ordinance, updating the current one or moving forward with this item.”

This article originally appeared on Sarasota Herald-Tribune: Sarasota can now ban smoking on the beach thanks to new law