By John Morton
The cart before the horse?
While Sarasota County Commissioner Mark Smith acknowledges that many details regarding implementation and enforcement will be required, on April 25 he jumped at the chance to enact a smoking ban on county beaches and in county parks.
“I believe we should move forward with this, and then we can fine-tune how we’re going to enforce it,” said Smith, who promptly made a motion after a brief discussion following a smoking-ban-related presentation by Nicole Rissler, the county’s Parks, Recreation and Natural Resources. “The bottom line is we’ve got to stop the smoking at our beaches and our parks.”
Commissioner Joe Neunder, who like Smith represents part of Siesta Key, seconded the motion. They are the board’s two newest members, being elected in November.
The commissioner voted 4-1 in favor of the ban, with Mike Moran saying no. A start date for the ban has yet to be determined.
“I believe government’s role is to protect us from ourselves on occasion. That’s why we have seat belts,” said smith, a Siesta Key resident who said he lost his mother to congestive hear failure due to smoking.
“The litter is huge on Siesta Key and every other beach and beach access. To a smoker, all the world’s an ashtray.”
The ban would exclude filter-free cigars, as the plastic tips present an issue with litter. Vaping products were also not included in the ban.
Cigarette filters can take as long as 10 years to decompose, and the notion of litter being a problem was at the forefront of the issue this time around. The potential for a smoking ban finally received support in March 2022 from the Florida Legislature. Three previous efforts by state Sen. Joe Gruters of Sarasota had been shot down, but in those cases second-hand smoke was among the focal points and tobacco lobbyists and civil rights groups fought hard in opposition.
When signed into law July 1, the new measure gave local counties and municipalities the right to enact a ban. The issue had been previously governed by the state, after local control was overturned in 2012 through a circuit court decision. Between 2007 and 2012, smoking on public beaches and in parks where youth activities were present had indeed been prohibited.
Sarasota County’s April 25 decision came after an Englewood resident, during public comment, said a recent beach clean-up on his beach resulted in the collection of more than 8,000 cigarette butts.
In opposition, Moran said “I have great hesitation having government trying to control people’s behaviors. I feel a real slippery slope here.”
Board chairman Ron Cutsinger, despite his favorable vote, agreed in part. “We have to be careful about people’s rights,” he said.
But he also voiced his disdain for smoking. “When someone smokes near me, I have to get away. It takes over the whole area,” he said.
Shortly after last year’s state ruling, the local county municipalities of Sarasota, Venice, and Longboat Key immediately put a smoking ban in place.
“Them having a prohibition and not us does cause some confusion for visitors,” Rissler said of what had been an inconsistency throughout the region.
Former county commissioner Christian Ziegler brought the idea of a possible countywide ban to the board last fall, but former commissioner Nancy Detert suggested the topic be delayed so public education could take place. In February, Smith asked that it become a discussion item as soon as possible.
Now, the county staff will be coming forward with a proposed policy after reviewing what is on the books with the other municipalities.
Enforcement will be quite the challenge, Moran said, and should “not just be on the sheriff.”
He added that asking county employees to address violators would also be unrealistic and potentially problematic.
“When someone refuses, from that moment what exactly are you going to do?” he asked. “You’re also going to have a ‘Karen’ variable with this. People will call 911.”
Moran voiced the need to be aggressive in penalties to set the tone for enforcement, going as high as $500 for a violation. Previously, $79 was the maximum penalty.
“If we could have the reputation that if you throw a cigarette on our beach, you’re going to get it,” he said of what he considers a needed mindset.
Cutsinger, meanwhile, suggested a robust educational campaign through signage and other materials, but also hoped the matter would police itself to some extent through peer pressure where people will say “Take that somewhere else. This is a smoke-free beach.”
“You won’t get 100% enforcement, but we’ll see an improvement regardless,” he added.
News of the upcoming ban pleased several Siesta Key residents who worked behind the scenes on the topic, as well as with Dr. Stephen Leatherman, whose popular “Dr. Beach” rankings have twice put Siesta Key at the top of his list. Leatherman in recent years has awarded extra points for smoke-free beaches when doing his calculations.
“We’ve been waiting for this for a long time,” said Catherine Luckner, president of the Siesta Key Association civic group. “I think Stephen Leatherman will be happy and many others will be thrilled to know they took some action on this.
“Anything we can do to keep the beaches safer, and cleaner, and continue to work on the water quality with which we are all in sync.”
Local businessman Mike Holderness has also worked with both Leatherman and Gruters. “It makes environmental and economic sense,” said Holderness, knowing both water quality and marketing for tourists will receive a boost. “We all should be thankful and very proud of our new Sarasota County Commission. This was a true legacy project.”