Bill Would Ban Butts on R.I. Beaches

By ecoRI News staff

A new bill seeks to reduce the top type of trash collected during beach cleanups in Rhode Island: cigarettes. Cigarette butts accounted for 33 percent of litter from state cleanups in 2014, according to a Save The Bay document.

The legislation, S0214, would ban smoking and disposing of smoking products within 20 feet of all state-run beaches. Fines would range from $150 to $1,000 and include at least eight hours of community service cleaning beaches.

“The use of tobacco is being found to be increasingly dangerous, for smokers and others who must breathe this contaminated air. Our beaches are family places, full of little children who should not be subjected to others fouling the air with potentially hazardous smoke,” said the bill’s sponsor, Sen. Erin Lynch, D-Cranston, in a prepared statement.

A survey conducted by the Rhode Island Department of Health found that 8 percent of respondents had been burned by stepping on a smoldering cigarette at the beach. Public support for restrictions was strong with 83 percent of respondents favoring smoking restrictions on beaches. However, only 38 percent favored an outright ban.

Cigarette butts contain 200 pollutants and 63 carcinogens. They are made of the plastic cellulose acetate, which doesn’t biodegrade. Fish and birds often mistaken them for food and choke or starve to death because the butts can’t be digested.

Cigarette butts also float, which helps them travel great distances in open water. They also move easily through inland storm drains and into waterways and onto beaches. According to Keep America Beautiful, smokers improperly dispose of cigarettes 65 percent of the time.

Environmental advocacy group Clean Ocean Access (COA) calls the state-led initiative “a breath of fresh air.” The Newport-based organizer of beach cleanups picked up some 24,000 cigarette butts in 2013 and 2014 from the Rhode Island shoreline.

COA executive director David McLaughlin said health impacts from second-hand smoke and impacts on marine life warrant a new law.

“We want to create an environment where people look at Aquidneck Island and Rhode Island as a destination where the community cares deeply about providing a safe environment for our visitors based on taking good care of each other,” he said.

Rhode Island currently has a voluntary smoking ban at its seven state beaches and 13 parks. Charlestown and North Providence ban smoking on municipal beaches. Thirty-five communities in Massachusetts and three in Connecticut ban beach smoking. Last September, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie vetoed a bill that banned smoking at public parks and beaches.

The Rhode Island bill was referred to the Senate Judiciary Committee. No hearing date has been set.