Citizens taking sides on beach smoking

Most of those talking to local officials about proposed beach smoking bans have been said to support the idea, but Bethany Beach and South Bethany council and committee members got an earful from the opposition on Aug. 16, when Bethany’s Charter and Ordinance Review Committee met to consider whether a proposed ban there should be recommended to the town council.

Members of CORC, which is chaired by Bethany Beach Vice Mayor Tony McClenny, were joined by South Bethany Town Councilman John Fields, who serves as that council’s liaison with its planning commission, which has also been charged with researching a possible smoking ban for South Bethany’s shore. Both towns have been looking into the issue after citizen complaints about smoking on their beaches.

Part-time Bethany resident Carol Boyer was among those who attended the Aug. 16 meeting to object to the notion of a smoking ban.

“Who are we to make smoking a moral issue?” Boyer, herself a smoker, asked. She said suggestions that a ban would help with reducing litter from discarded cigarette butts was not a valid reason to make the change.

“I pick up trash now, on the boardwalk and as I walk back from the beach,” she said, adding that enforcement of existing litter laws was a better idea if litter really is the problem being targeted by the proposed ban.

“It will be a deterrent to visitors from coming to town,” Boyer also suggested of a ban.

On that count, Bethany Council Member Jerry Dorfman, himself a former smoker, disagreed. “When they were going to ban smoking in bars and restaurants, they argued that they would lose business. The opposite has been true.”

Part-time resident Jim Stanley, however, argued that businesses required to ban smoking had taken a financial hit, particularly when it came to renovations made to create separate smoking areas.

Dorfman pointed to physical evidence of the litter problem as relates specifically to cigarettes, noting that participants in the annual Coastal Cleanup picked up some 22,596 cigarettes and cigarette filters from Delaware beaches in 2005.

That was an increase from 15,351 cigarettes and filters in 2004. In all recent cleanups, cigarettes and filters have been the most common item collected.

But Stanley countered that he felt discarded fishing hooks and the feeding of birds on the beach — neither of which are specifically banned in Bethany Beach — is just as much of a health hazard to beachgoers.

He questioned whether the town planned to ban the use of aerosol sunscreens, which he said could be a source of complaints similar to those about cigarette and cigar smoke, also potentially resulting in asthma attacks.

“Where do you put the line? Where do you stop?” Stanley asked.

Boyer said she felt the recent explorations of a beach smoking ban in Bethany were another case where “the squeaky wheel gets the grease. What about the people who say Bethany is changing, that it’s getting so picayune?” she asked. “If we took a vote, how many would say yes or no? We need to look at the general population before making any decisions.”

Opponents of the proposed ban also asked whether the town planned to enforce the prohibition only on the beach, or whether it would extend to the boardwalk or into the surf, or even onto the streets.

Some said they felt smoking on the boardwalk was at least as much of a risk to citizens and visitors, since cramped quarters and movement could mean burns as well as second-hand smoke.

“You’re going too far to exert control,” Boyer said. “Bethany will become known as a town of control. This is over the top.”

Public health concerns a major factor

Though much of the discussion of a ban has focused on the issue of litter and environmental damage from cigarettes left on the beach, the issue of public health has not been left out, and it is one of the chief reasons many proponents of a ban have pushed the issue before the two towns.

“Smoking has been pretty widely publicized as a public health issue,” Bethany Mayor Carol Olmstead explained at the CORC meeting. “There are very few places where smoking is banned in outdoor areas,” she allowed. “But this issue has come to our attention because of the close proximity of people on the beach.”

Olmstead emphasized that her acknowledgement of the health issue was not a position on the proposed ban, though.

Deborah Brown of the Delaware chapter of the American Lung Association was at the meeting on Aug. 16 to back up Olmstead’s perception of outdoor smoking as a major public health issue – and one government is increasingly looking to deal with through bans.

“Many coastal and beach communities are looking at moving toward bans,” Brown said. “And a lot more will be in the near future.”

She said 30 minutes of exposure to second-hand smoke had been proven to be a significant risk for a heart attack, while children with asthma could have their attacks triggered by exposure to smoke.

Indeed, the American Heart Association (AHA) states that more than 35,000 nonsmokers die each year in the United States from coronary heart disease due to exposure to secondhand smoke. A recent Surgeon General’s report, they said, also confirms that secondhand smoke is a major risk factor for coronary heart disease and states that there is no safe level of exposure to secondhand smoke.

Smoking bans proven to improve public health

As bans on smoking in businesses and public venues have spread across the nation, the impact of those bans has already been felt in the public health sector. The AHA reported that a citywide anti-smoking ordinance in Pueblo, Colo., resulted in a dramatic decrease in admissions to the local hospitals for heart attacks affecting the city’s residents.

In the 18 months after the law took effect, admissions for heart attacks by residents within the city limits of Pueblo dropped 27 percent compared to the 18 months prior to the law’s passage. The rate of heart attacks did not change for residents of surrounding Pueblo County or for the comparison area of El Paso County.

After the law went into effect, heart attack rates fell by 70 per 100,000 person-years in the city of Pueblo, 20 per 100,000 person-years in Pueblo County outside the city limits and 3 per 100,000 person-years in El Paso County. Researchers found that seasonal differences did not account for the lowering effect found after the anti-smoking ordinance.

“You can save lives with drugs and expensive, sophisticated devices, but this single community action led to 108 fewer heart attacks in an 18-month period,” Dr. Carl Bartecchi said in a statement. “Each hospital admission for a heart attack costs an average of $20,000 here in Pueblo, so in addition to saving lives, non-smoking ordinances also save a lot of money.”

AHA President Dr. Raymond Gibbons said the development of atherosclerosis that leads to a heart attack usually takes 20 years, which was a revealing in light of the study.

“The decline in the number of heart attack hospitalizations within the first year and a half after the non-smoking ban that was observed in this study is most likely due to a decrease in the effect of secondhand smoke as a triggering factor for heart attacks,” he explained. “The ordinance will likely continue to decrease the number of heart attacks and save lives every year.”

Bartecchi said, “After the Helena study, the Centers for Disease Control recommended that people at risk of coronary heart disease avoid secondhand smoke. This study should strengthen that recommendation. The Pueblo experience adds to mounting evidence that smoke-free indoor air laws are common-sense public health measures that save lives. These results should also encourage other municipalities to pass smoke-free ordinances.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control, nonsmokers who are exposed to secondhand smoke at home or work increase their heart disease risk by 25 to 30 percent and their lung cancer risk by 20 to 30 percent. Breathing secondhand smoke has immediate harmful effects on the cardiovascular system that can increase the risk of heart attack. People who already have heart disease are at especially high risk.

Secondhand smoke exposure causes respiratory symptoms in children and slows their lung growth. Secondhand smoke causes sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS), acute respiratory infections, ear problems, and more frequent and severe asthma attacks in children. The CDC says there is no risk-free level of secondhand smoke exposure. Even brief exposure can be dangerous.

More than 126 million non-smoking Americans are exposed to secondhand smoke in homes, vehicles, workplaces and public places. Almost 60 percent of U.S. children ages 3 to 11 — or almost 22 million children — are exposed to secondhand smoke, some of them on public beaches.

Beach is the workplace for some

And while most smoking bans have specifically pointed to the hazards of the work environment for employees who wait on smoking customers in bars and restaurants, some have argued that beach smoking bans don’t demonstrate the same clear concerns about health, because fresh air and the ability to move down the beach make all the difference.

Pregnant beachgoers and the parents of small children have been known to debate between confronting smokers, moving their chosen beach locations and leaving the beach entirely when discovering someone smoking nearby. It can be a hassle when dealing with small children and all the paraphernalia most take to the beach.

However, at least one set of workers in Delaware’s beach towns is generally stuck to their spot on the sand with no choice about moving or leaving: the lifeguards who protect beachgoers, along with those who work at beachside rental stands and open-air boardwalk shops. Thus, the workplace issue begins to extend even to the outdoors.

Enforcement issues a concern, despite precedents

The discussion of beach smoking bans in Delaware is at the crest of a growing nationwide trend. In California, which in 1994 was the first state in the nation to ban smoking in bars and restaurants, dozens of municipalities have since banned smoking on their beaches.

Solana Beach was the first town in that state to institute such a ban, in 2003. Town officials primarily cited a litter problem when they floated the notion. San Clemente added its own ban in 2004, while Encinitas considered a ban that year but commissioners voted 3-2 not to institute it.

The City of San Diego put a ban in place just over a year ago, with a $250 fine to violators. In that year, 42 citations have been issued by police and lifeguards, with police reporting no perceived drop in visitors, according to a report in the Voice San Diego News. And the San Diego chapter of the Surfrider Foundation estimated that it collected half as many cigarettes and filters in the group’s annual July 4 trash collection this year as in 2006.

In Michigan, six beaches in Ottowa County banned smoking on the shore as of Aug. 1 of this year, with a $40 fine for violations. Closer to home, Belmar, N.J., instituted a smoking ban in 2001 for both its beach and boardwalk. There, smokers can light up within 100 feet of 14 signs designating smoking areas. There is a $25 fine for violations, and enforcement was delayed while the new policy became known.

One of the biggest concerns expressed about instituting a smoking ban in both Bethany and South Bethany has been enforcement.

Opponents of the ban at the Aug. 17 Bethany CORC meeting said they felt banning smoking on the beach would just chase smokers onto the boardwalk or into the surf unless the town was prepared to institute bans in those locations as well. And if a ban was extended, they said, people would gather on the streets to smoke.

Similar concerns were aired at South Bethany’s most recent council meeting on Aug. 10, when former Councilman Bob Cestone voice his opposition to a ban for purely practical reasons.

“People are going to find a way to smoke,” he said, suggesting that banning smoking on the beach would lead to smokers gathering at the top of beach access ramps, leaving butts on the roadway and permeating smoke in areas the public would have to cross to get on and off the beach, affecting the enjoyment of people’s beach homes in the end.

“They’ll go smoke across the street if you tell them they have to be 20 feet away from the beach,” he said, chiming in with the Bethany opponents that the better answer to litter concerns was enforcement of existing litter laws. A ban, he said, would likely just serve to make the problem bigger.

Fields credited Cestone with good points on Aug. 10, noting that many people had told him the problems South Bethany would see if it tried to enact a ban but that no one had come forward with ways to solve those problems.

Cestone’s answer to the concerns about smoking on the beach: “Tell them to ignore it.”

Momentum appears to support bans

CORC Member Fulton Lapatto disagreed on Aug. 17, saying that health issues were a real concern and that the town should address the problem. He cited the crowding of the town’s erosion-narrowed beach, saying it forced a concentration of beach-goers who would not have much choice about getting away from smokers.

“This is a health issue,” he said emphatically. “We already permit no alcohol on the beach.” He said Californians residing where bans had been instituted had become “very matter-of-fact about it.”

“I’m not sure why we shouldn’t support it,” he added.

It was an argument Dorfman agreed with. “Our beaches are very crowded now, and it’s only going to get worse in the future, with the building to the west,” he said. “People with kids want to come here.” He also noted that the town manages to enforce a prohibition on dogs on the beach during the summer season. And, with more seasonal police officers patrolling the boardwalk area on foot, he said he expected enforcement could be made to work.

Fields, who has no formal voice in CORC’s recommendations to his counterparts in Bethany Beach, said his research on the issue has convinced him that a ban is inevitable.

“Smoking has become unfashionable and unpopular,” he said, citing increasing efforts nationwide to prohibit smoking in public parks and on beaches. He said he felt enforcement would become a non-issue if notice of smoking bans was posted near the beaches.

“If a smoker is sitting next to someone, they’ll call (the ban) to their attention,” he said. If smokers didn’t take heed of that reminder, he said lifeguards and citizens could notify police, who could certainly handle any potential confrontations. “It’s done like that in places where it is banned,” he added.

Fields said he felt the little issue was “a serious concern,” beyond just trash on the beach, with birds and other valued wildlife being at risk from eating the non-degradable materials and beachgoers being at risk from still-lit cigarettes that could easily be dug up or stepped upon, causing burns.

Many of the California towns have banned smoking not only on the beach but on piers and boardwalks adjacent to them, citing not only the health and litter issues but also concern about fires.

The bottom line in favor of a ban, Fields said, was simple: “Non-smokers object to the smell. They don’t want it around them.”

“The general public supports a ban, and it’s going to come down to that eventually,” Fields concluded. “The town council will have to ban it, and it’s going to be sooner rather than later. I believe it will come to that within a year,” he predicted.

Dorfman said he also expected the Bethany council to take action on the idea before the 2008 summer season. The first step in that direction will be a recommendation from CORC, whose members were asked by McClenny on Aug. 10 to review the information presented and any additional research they wished to do and to be prepared to make recommendations to the council at CORC’s September meeting.

Legal authority unclear on smoking bans

Beyond the opposition of some vocal citizens in both towns, for a variety of reasons, and smokers-rights advocates on a larger scale, the beach smoking bans also face some major legal hurdles.

In Surfside Beach, S.C., town officials recently banned smoking in businesses and public parks and on public beaches, largely due to litter concerns. But the ban has been challenged in court, where it currently stands before the state supreme court.

The challenges in South Carolina focus on whether local governments can pass their own ordinances banning smoking or whether it is a right reserved for the state. The South Carolina attorney general’s office has concluded it is the state legislature that has the right to make any legislation on the issue. And, in South Carolina, the state controls public beaches up to the high water mark, just as in most of Delaware.

But there have been conflicting legal decisions regarding South Carolina’s beach smoking bans. A Sullivan’s Island smoking ban was upheld in the circuit court, while a ban in Greenwood was struck down by a circuit court judge on the grounds that the state holds the right to make law regarding smoking on the public beach.

Even between the two neighboring Delaware beach towns, circumstances vary. In Bethany Beach, the town technically owns the beach, though with oversight from the Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control. In South Bethany, where private property on the beach ends, DNREC is the regulating authority.

Thus, while South Bethany officials have sought to follow Bethany’s lead on the issue, the towns could find themselves in two separate situations when it comes to legal authority for a ban. The Delaware attorney general’s office also has not yet issued an opinion on the matter as it stands under Delaware law, nor has one even formally been requested.

Bethany Beach and South Bethany are treading into uncharted territory in pursuing a possible smoking ban for their beaches, and though many officials and citizens in both towns appear to support a ban, it could be a while before smokers know for sure whether they’ll have to kick the habit as their toes hit the sands.