TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — If you are a smoker and like spending time puffing away at the beach, you soon may want to consider doing that before you get to the sand.
If you are lucky you could have a special section where you can also hobnob with other fellow smokers. But, you would still have to be responsible and properly dispose of your cigarette butts.
That's because possible changes to smoking rules are looming. Two companion bills to do that are moving forward and gaining momentum in the Florida Legislature.
Today a state house committee unanimously approved its version of the bill to stop beachgoers from littering the sand with cigarette butts.
Currently, local governments and municipalities are not allowed to ban cigarette smoking on their beaches. That's because tobacco regulation lies with the state. But, the bill (HB 105), which is sponsored by Randy Fine (R-Brevard County), will allow cities and counties the authority to decide what to do about smoking at the beaches under their jurisdiction. And, that can include banning it completely.
Local leaders can also decide to create designated smoking zones and fines. Sen. Joe Gruters (R-Sarasota) has long supported the measures of the bill with the state senate's version which he introduced. Gruter's bill (SB 224), which recently passed one of the senate committees, goes the extra mile by calling for a ban on smoking and cigarette butts at both public beaches and state parks.
According to Ocean Conservancy, cigarette butts, along with plastics, are major sources of pollution at beaches and impact wildlife.
"Cigarette butts are fundamentally little pieces of plastic and a key mission of ours is to get plastic out of the marine environment because of the effect it has on our ecosystem and on the marine environment," said Jon Paul "J.P." Brooker, director of Florida Conservation at the Ocean Conservancy.
"There is growing awareness of the threats to Florida and I think there is a growing willingness to do something about it," Brooker said.
Local leaders would also have the authority to decide whether or not to create designated smoking sections and what type of fines to levy against violators. The lawmakers are hoping these pieces of legislation, if passed into law, can help clear Florida's beaches of cigarette butts. This would also mean that birds won't keep mistaking them for food or nesting items and fish don't ingest them and end up on the people's plates.
"Animals are deeply affected by cigarette butt plastic. We have seen pictures of birds feeding cigarette butts to their chicks, we've seen cigarette butt plastic accumulating in the guts of fish, and so if we can reduce the amount of plastic in the environment, we can alleviate those impacts on our wildlife," said Brooker.
At one of its cleanups last year, volunteers with Ocean Conservancy picked up more than 180,000 cigarette butts from beaches and prevented them from ending up in the ocean.