By Ben Fuchs
UNION-TRIBUNE STAFF WRITER
September 12, 2004
Solana Beach was the first city in California to ban beach smoking.
August 2002. Ten local teenagers drag themselves out of bed on a balmy Saturday morning and drowsily make their way to Moonlight Beach in Encinitas.
After exchanging greetings, they grab garbage pickers and fluorescent-orange bags, kick off their sandals and start combing a half-mile stretch of sand for trash.
The young volunteers return in less than an hour, faces painted with shock. They had collected roughly 6,000 cigarette butts that quickly.
The teens were there to clean up the beach. They had no clue their work would spark a movement that has spread to a dozen California communities and captured the attention of lawmakers in Sacramento.
About two years later, Encinitas' southern neighbor, Solana Beach, has become the torchbearer in a rapidly spreading effort across the state to rid beaches of butts.
Last November, Solana Beach became the first community in California to ban smoking on an ocean beach. Since then, eight other cities and one county in the state have outlawed smoking on their beaches, and several more communities are working on similar ordinances.
A bill to ban smoking on all 64 state-run beaches in California failed by two votes Aug. 26 in the state Senate, but supporters expect to see a like measure passed in the next few years.
This is not the first time Solana Beach has led a movement to restrict smoking. It was the first community in the state to ban lighting up in restaurants in 1992, three years before a similar statewide law took effect.
For many in this city of 13,000, the beach smoking ban was a logical step toward maintaining their quality of life.
"We've seen a proliferation of cigarette butts," said Mayor Joe Kellejian. "Our beaches were virtually used as an ashtray."
Motivated by mess
Diana Lavery was one of the volunteers, all members of the Youth Tobacco Prevention Corps of the San Dieguito Alliance for Drug Free Youth, who scoured Moonlight Beach two years ago. Now 19, she said that day's discovery was the last straw.
"It was kind of discouraging," she said.
After the surprise of their find melted away, Lavery and her cohorts went to work, more motivated than ever. They videotaped anti-smoking testimonials from local residents, searched the Internet for statistics on smoking's hazards, practiced speeches and perfected presentations.
In October 2002, Lavery and two other teens stood in front of the Solana Beach City Council to lay out their reasons for a smoking ban on the city's 1.7 miles of coastline. The council eventually agreed with them and voted unanimously last October for a ban. Smoking on city beaches and at city parks became illegal a month later.
Kellejian said the teens' presentation brought a major nuisance and health hazard into focus and played a large role in the council's historic vote.
He said it would be blatantly hypocritical to allow smoking on the city's beaches while continuing to promote Solana Beach as a safe place to live and visit. The U.S. surgeon general has listed smoking as the leading cause of preventable deaths in the nation.
Some smokers are unhappy with the legislation. Burbank resident Ray Domkus, president of FORCES California, a smokers' rights group claiming 6,000 to 7,000 members statewide, said smoking bans have ruined a favorite summer pastime: relaxing at the beach, puffing on a Marlboro.
"Basically what they have done is stolen the beaches from me and people like me," he said.
Supporters of such bans say cigarette butts account for roughly 40 percent of all litter found on California beaches. Eben Schwartz, statewide outreach director for the Coastal Commission, said volunteers throughout California reported finding about 315,000 butts during last year's Coastal Cleanup Day and the total was probably 10 times that amount.
"Folks get so sick of picking up cigarette butts that they stop keeping track," Schwartz said.
The butts pose "a disgusting health hazard" since they can be ingested by small children and marine life, he said. And there is no way to tell how long the filters take to break down because the plastic material used in them "has only been around for 50 years, and we've never seen it completely biodegrade."
During storms and high tides, Schwartz said, filters often wash out to sea, where fish and marine mammals may mistake them for a meal. He said butts also leach hundreds of toxic chemicals into the sand and ocean, posing a threat to marine life. And, he added, the chemicals can wind up in fish and shellfish that are later consumed by humans, which he called a "terrifying" prospect.
While the full environmental implications of Solana Beach's ban may not be known for years, supporters cite the case of Honolulu's Hanauma Bay Nature Preserve, where officials enacted a smoking ban in 1993 to head off rampant littering. Eleven years later, the preserve's picturesque, crescent-shaped beach looks cleaner despite having close to a million visitors annually, preserve manager Alan Hong said.
Several East Coast cities also have beach smoking bans, but all include designated areas where lighting up is allowed.
Ban supporters say that aside from the direct health risks, which include exposure to second-hand smoke, puffing away on beaches can lead kids in the wrong direction.
"Smoking in family environments shouldn't be allowed because children then believe that tobacco is harmless and fun," said Candice Porter, program director for the Youth Tobacco Prevention Corps. "Once you get kids in that position, they try it, and guess what – it's addictive."
Porter said environmental groups from other cities began calling her for advice after the Solana Beach council's landmark vote last fall. Six months later, bans were cropping up throughout coastal Southern California.
Stephanie Barger, executive director of the Costa Mesa-based Earth Resource Foundation, said Solana Beach served as an example for grass-roots campaigns in Orange County.
"We really used that as a model for us," she said.
The Earth Resource Foundation and other organizations conferred frequently with Porter while pressing officials in Orange County to outlaw beach smoking. In March, San Clemente became the second city in the state to forbid it, a move replicated a week later by Santa Monica. Los Angeles soon followed suit, as did Malibu, Huntington Beach, Carpinteria and Newport Beach. The Capitola City Council on Thursday voted unanimously in favor of a ban.
Los Angeles County enacted a temporary ban in late June that will run through Thursday on two county-run beaches, Topanga and Marina.
On Tuesday, the Laguna Beach City Council is scheduled to vote on a ban, and the Manhattan Beach council plans to consider an ordinance Sept. 21. Similar measures are under consideration in Santa Cruz and Long Beach.
In San Diego County, the Encinitas City Council voted down such legislation in April. Councilman Jerome Stocks, who sided against the proposed ordinance, said he thought a ban would be better suited as a ballot measure.
"That's the type of issue that should really go before the voters," he said.
In Solana Beach, as in other California cities, officials are counting on beachgoers to police themselves, though a violator can be slapped with a $100 fine. New signs notify visitors of the law, and lifeguards here say they've encountered little resistance. Nobody has been cited since the ban went into effect, and lifeguards say they have had to warn only about one lawbreaker a day.
"Even smokers themselves have been pretty positive about this," said Solana Beach Fire Chief David Ott, who oversees the city's lifeguards.
Shera Hardy of Gilbert, Ariz., said during a recent trip to Del Mar Shores Beach Park in Solana Beach with her family that the city made the right move.
"Now, if they ban beer, they're in trouble," she joked, sipping a Miller Lite.
Another vacationer, Sara Clark, applauded the city's decision and predicted that similar bans would gradually gain acceptance in other parts of the country.
"We're always 10 years behind California," said Clark, who lives in Iowa.
Not all beachgoers were as pleased with the ban. Eli Duron, a Santa Clarita resident and former smoker, said city officials should focus on other issues, such as the aircraft and helicopters frequently seen – and heard – skimming the shoreline.
"I don't think the cigarette butts are that big of a deal," he said.
Leading anti-smoking activist Patrick Reynolds, a grandson of tobacco company founder R.J. Reynolds, said the bans are the result of "an idea whose time has come" – no matter what the industry says.
"The tobacco companies always try to portray us as fanatics or zealots," he said. "But the truth is these are reasonable laws, intended in this case to prevent litter and protect non-smokers."
Assemblyman Paul Koretz, D-West Hollywood, a staunch advocate of tighter smoking regulations and the author of the failed state beach smoking bill, said the Solana Beach prohibition has raised national and global awareness. He pointed to recent bans at beaches in Sydney, Australia, as evidence that the movement has spread overseas.
"It's gone from an issue that nobody cared about to one that has gained worldwide attention," he said. "I would be surprised if smoking's not banned at beaches all over the world within a few years."
Koretz said bans in Southern California served as templates for his bill.
Teresa Stark, Koretz's chief of staff, said her boss hasn't decided whether he will revive the bill next year. The measure encountered stiff resistance from the tobacco industry and smokers' rights groups in Sacramento. Philip Morris USA lobbied against it, and other companies expressed their opposition.
RJ Reynolds Tobacco Co. spokesman David Howard said beach smoking bans are "over the top" and don't address the true source of the problem: littering.
"If the problem is litter on the beach, why aren't they going after littering entirely?" he asked. "To me, that doesn't make sense."
It doesn't make sense to Domkus, either. The smokers' rights group president said he used to enjoy visiting Santa Monica and Leo Carrillo state beaches before they became smoke-free. Now he stays away.
Domkus said the cities that have outlawed smoking on their beaches this year are merely "a bunch of sheep following Solana Beach."
"It's absolute, total discrimination," he said. "What I've been told is I'm not welcome there."
Porter said smokers are welcome at places like Solana Beach. Just don't think of lighting up on the sand.