The Bethany Beach Town Council voted 6-1 on Friday, April 18, to adopt the smoking ban the town has spent the last seven months debating and turning into legislation. With the vote, the town became the first in the state of Delaware to ban smoking on a public beach.
Such bans already exist in many California beach towns, as well as on the Great Lakes and in New England. Neighboring South Bethany and Fenwick Island officials have also been discussing possible smoking bans for their beaches but have been waiting for Bethany Beach to adopt its legislation before pursuing their own.
Council Member Tracy Mulligan was the only one of the seven Bethany council members on Friday not to vote in favor of the ban, which prohibits smoking in and around children’s playgrounds, town parks and on the boardwalk plaza area at the street end of Garfield Parkway on a year-round basis.
The ban also affects the rest of the town’s boardwalk and its beach and shoreline between May 15 and Sept. 15 — the traditional summer season in the resort town — except for designated smoking areas at the eastern edge of the new dune.
The ban would be enforced by town police and code enforcement officers — not lifeguards. Violators would receive a written warning on their first offense. The second offense within four months would result in a summons to appear before the town alderman and a $100 fine.
Third and subsequent offenses inside four months would result in being taken into custody and appearing immediately before the alderman, with a $500 fine. A violation of the ban more than four months after a prior warning would be considered a new first offense.
Council Member Bob Parsons requested late changes to the legislation at its second reading Friday, to clarify in its statement of reasoning for the ban that the council was not decisively saying that secondhand smoke outdoors is a proven health risk.
“It’s the Delaware Clean Indoor Air Act,” he said of state legislation that already concludes secondhand smoke is harmful, emphasizing the word “indoor.” He noted that the state’s campaign to eliminate indoor smoking recommends smokers take their tobacco products outdoors — the very area the town is now trying to clear of smoking in its most child-friendly and congested areas.
Councilman Steve Wode agreed with the recommended change, concerned that the council’s adoption of the ban with the rationale worded as initially proposed could come back to haunt it.
“The wording validates that secondhand smoke outdoors is dangerous, and it will be used to show the town [enacted the ban] because of that,” Wode argued. “Indoors is proven. Outdoors may be. The science is still out. And we shouldn’t say that without the science that backs it up.”
Councilman Jerry Dorfman, who has been second only to Vice-Mayor Tony McClenny on the council in his fervency in championing the ban, argued that enough evidence exists of the harmful impact of secondhand smoke outdoors to alone justify the ban. He pointed to references presented during discussion of the ban, and reported in the Coastal Point on several occasions, that some scientists have found evidence of at least potential harm in secondhand smoke in the outdoors.
Among those making the case that outdoor smoking could be harmful to the public health:
• Studies by Standford University in 2006 indicated that, while many believe smoke disperses in the outdoors to where it is not a second-hand health threat, at least 6 feet of distance and having smokers downwind of others was required to avoid pollution rates up to 50 times normal ambient readings.
• A University of Maryland, Baltimore College, 2005 study on the presence of multiple smokers in a given outdoor area revealed that at least 23 feet of distance was needed to avoid second-hand smoke. The study also indicated that larger congregations of smokers, such as those gathering in a designated smoking area, led to conditions where smoke dissipated no better or more quickly than it would indoors.
• Even executives at cigarette manufacturing companies have deep concerns about smoking near children, with the advice given in recent years that smoking should be banned near playgrounds and tot-lots.
Dorfman said even precedent was on the town’s side at this point.
“We’re not the first beach town to ban smoking. We’re not setting a precedent,” he emphasized.
But Parsons and Wode still supported a change in the ordinance’s wording regarding the council’s rationale for the ban.
“We make ourselves a little bit foolish to do the right thing for the wrong reasons,” Parsons commented.
On a 6-0 vote, with Mulligan abstaining, the council allowed that the scientific conclusions on that specific health issue are still yet to be made, though secondhand smoke indoors has been accepted publicly as a health hazard and some studies do indicate secondhand smoke is also a risk outdoors. Wording was changed to reflect that “secondhand smoke outdoors may be” a public health hazard, with indoor smoke concluded to definitively be so.
Parsons also argued that smokers were being made out to be bigger culprits in concerns about littering than they really are.
While it is often cited that smoking-related items, such as cigarette butts, are the top item collected in beach cleanups nationwide, Parsons claimed that other litter items are larger and are therefore often picked up with regular beach cleaning, leaving cigarette butts to linger until intensive cleanups take place over longer periods and giving the false impression of their comparative number in the litter stream.
Mulligan’s opposition to implementing the ban continued through the vote this week. He has stated that he does not necessarily believe it is the town council’s place to ban outdoor smoking. As with Parsons, Mulligan also emphasized the lack of decisive scientific opinion on the health threat of secondhand smoking outdoors.
Jerry Valentine of the IMPACT Delaware Tobacco Prevention Coalition joined Dorfman in reinforcing the potential health risks of smoking to the public, even when done outdoors.
“The Surgeon General’s opinion states that there is no safe level of secondhand smoke,” Valentine emphasized. “I don’t think we can get much more clear than that.”
Mulligan took issue with that statement, saying that one statement from a report, out of context, could not make the argument when the bulk of the report in question referred to the dangers of smoking indoors, not outdoors. He cast the single council vote against the ban.
With adoption of the ban, supporters burst into applause last Friday night.
The council then voted unanimously to formally adopt and add to its list of fines and penalties the associated penalties for violating the new ordinance.
The new ban will take effect this May 15, as the town’s parking meter requirements go into effect. It is anticipated that signage reflecting the ban’s restrictions and accommodations for smokers in the designated smoking areas of the beach will be in place at that time.