By Donald Wittkowski
Come Jan. 16, Sea Isle City and other Jersey Shore towns will have a message for smokers: Get your butts off our beaches.
A new state law taking effect on that day bans smoking at New Jersey’s beaches and parks, but it includes a provision that allows municipalities to set aside small areas where people can still light up.
Towns will have the option of imposing a full ban or designating smoking areas on 15 percent of their beaches.
One big question remains for all towns no matter whether they go completely smoke-free or allow smoking on a limited basis: Who will enforce the law? Lifeguards, local police officers and beach tag inspectors have been mentioned as possibilities, but there is no consensus.
“This piece of legislation is going to be very, very tough to enforce,” Sea Isle Mayor Leonard Desiderio said.
Desiderio said he is leaning toward having a 15 percent smoking area on Sea Isle’s beaches to help people adjust to the new law, but made it clear he could also support an outright ban.
“I’m not a smoker. Fifteen percent or zero is good with me,” he said in an interview Wednesday.
Desiderio cited the Disney resorts as an example of how designated smoking areas can work. Walt Disney World restaurants, shops, theme parks and resort hotels are smoke-free environments. However, there are designated smoking areas outside, according to the Disney website.
Sea Isle will erect new signs and launch an advertising campaign to help educate the public about the smoking ban, the mayor said. He believes a public awareness campaign will be one of the keys to making the law a success.
City Council will ultimately vote on whether to make Sea Isle’s beaches completely smoke-free or to create a designated smoking area.
Pointing out the amount of cigarette butts that litter the beaches each year, Sea Isle Councilman J.B. Feeley wants to outlaw smoking altogether.
“I just don’t like the idea that smokers think the world is their ashtray. It’s not,” said Feeley, a nonsmoker.
Clean Ocean Action, an environmental group that oversees community beach cleanups in New Jersey each year, reported that more than 29,000 cigarette butts were picked up in 2017, accounting for about 8 percent of all the litter removed from the state’s shoreline.
During Sea Isle’s fall beach cleanup in October, 6,580 pieces of trash and debris were collected. Discarded plastic items were by far the most common type of junk found on the Sea Isle beaches – 5,197 pieces in all, or 79 percent of the entire load of trash that was removed.
A total of 1,124 cigarette butts were picked up during the fall cleanup, according to a report by Sea Isle’s Environmental Commission.
Feeley believes that the smoking ban will be a positive development for Sea Isle’s summer tourism trade by dramatically reducing the number of cigarette butts littering the beaches.
He said the city may face too many logistical challenges if it tries to set up designated smoking areas instead of having a blanket ban.
“What do you do, draw a line in the sand and say, ‘No smoking here?’” he asked.
Feeley also noted that smoking has become far less accepted over the years amid the health dangers of tobacco use.
“I’m sure there are more people out there who dislike smoke being blown in their face,” he said.
Vaping is also prohibited on the beaches under the new law. But the legislation doesn’t specify who will be responsible for enforcing the smoking ban. Senate President Steve Sweeney, who sponsored the legislation, has suggested that lifeguards or local police officers could handle enforcement.
Desiderio strongly objects to using lifeguards or police officers to enforce the smoking ban. He wants lifeguards to concentrate on watching the ocean to protect swimmers and believes police officers should patrol the streets to fight crime.
“I can’t see hiring five police officers to walk the beach looking for people smoking,” Desiderio said.
Feeley suggested that beach tag inspectors might be a way to enforce the smoking ban. But he added that many of the beach tag inspectors are young and he does not want them having to deal with smokers who might be confrontational if told to extinguish their cigarettes or cigars.
Both Desiderio and Feeley said they will consult with Sea Isle Police Chief Tom McQuillen on ideas to enforce the law.
For those caught smoking on the beach, fines start at $250 for a first offense and go up to $1,000 for a third offense.
The timing of the smoking ban gives municipalities several months to prepare for the arrival of the peak summer beach season.
Desiderio expressed hope that beachgoers will simply be respectful of the smoking ban, saving Sea Isle the trouble of having an elaborate enforcement plan.
“As a nonsmoker, I look forward to going to a place where smoking is banned,” he said.