No butts needed: Florida again considers banning smoking at public beaches, in parks

Chad Gillis
Marco Eagle
Cigarette butts are seen on Fort Myers Beach on Tuesday, Jan. 4, 2022. Sarasota Sen. Joe Guters is pushing a bill that would ban smoking at public beaches and areas within the boundaries of state parks.

Not all butts are welcome on Florida beaches.

State Sen. Joe Gruters, a Republican from Sarasota, is pushing a bill that would ban smoking at public beaches and areas within the boundaries of state parks in a move that's been tried before but never succeeded. 

Gruters said that he feels like Senate Bill 224, and its companion House Bill 105, will become law this year. 

"Florida's most precious resource is the beach," Gruters said. "People want to enjoy their experience without having to deal with second-hand smoke and the litter of cigarette butts left behind. It's time to get the bad butts off the beach and get the butts on the beach that we want."

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Many environmental groups are supporting the proposed ban.

J.P. Brooker, director of Florida conservation for Ocean Conservancy, said cigarette butts (and the attached filters) are the No. 1 trash item collected along Florida beaches. 

"In this go-round Florida is really facing a lot of environmental crises, whether it's manatee die-off, sea grass die-off or water quality issues," Brooker said. "And this is a low lift that will have significant impacts. It's a common sense approach to a not-so-insignificant problem." 

Brooker said cigarette butts break down slowly, and that when they do they end up in food chain. 

"These cigarette butts are fundamentally little pieces of plastic that can ultimately get into our wildlife, the fish we consume," Brooker said. "So we're eating that plastic in fish and shellfish and it's a public hazard." 

Brooker said the Ocean Conservancy has worked with 100 countries and that cigarette butts are at the top of the list of pollution on all those beaches. 

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The bill is in committee review and has passed through one Senate hearing. 

"It's taken different forms and I think we're finally at a place where we have a chance to move it," Gruters said. "I expect it to continue to move in the Senate and, talking to a couple of people in the House, I think it has a real chance to pass there." 

Gruters and the environmental groups argue that the state long ago banned cigarettes and smoking at indoor workplaces and restaurants, but now further restrictions are needed to protect the public and to prevent pollution. 

The bill says municipalities, counties and school district can implement stricter non-smoking standards as long as they don't conflict with what would be state law. 

Mike Thomas, program coordinator for Keep Lee County Beautiful, said he fully supports the bill and thinks the ban will help his group keep local beaches and causeways cleaner. 

"They kind of treat the beach like a giant ash tray," Thomas said of some smokers. "It seems like not as many people would de smoking (as opposed to the 1970s or '80s) but we find cigarette butts everywhere." 

Keep Lee County Beautiful holds regular clean-up efforts along the area's sandy beaches, which act as a camouflaged background for cigarette butts. 

Whether white or hazelnut in color, the butts are hard to find because they blend so well into the natural background. 

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And they are mistaken as food by some protected species. 

"Stuff is getting thrown out there and it is a common item for birds to eat," Thomas explained. "Turtles will eat them, and the birds grab whatever they can and in the end it leads to their death. So that’s a problem." 

If eventually approved, the bill would require the state to develop a public outreach program to help inform residents and visitors about the new law and how smokers may be impacted. 

The bill would also strike the word "indoor" from the Florida Clean Indoor Air Act. 

If approved, the bill would take effect July 1. 

“Florida's beaches are the economic engine of our state," Gruters said at a press conference Tuesday. "People travel from around the world to visit our pristine shorelines and enjoy the Sunshine State’s natural beauty. We must do everything that we can to protect our most valuable asset."