By TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff
MIDDLETOWN, R.I. — Beach-smoking bans are getting popular. On July 6, the Town Council endorsed an immediate smoking ban at its popular Sachuest Beach (Second Beach) and Third Beach. The ban also applies to parks and athletic fields.
The action follows Newport, which banned smoking at its beaches and on the Cliff Walk in June. Barrington, Charlestown and North Providence are the only other Rhode Island municipalities that prohibit smoking on beaches.
Earlier this year, Truro became the eighth town on Cape Cod and the 43rd municipality in Massachusetts to outlaw beach smoking. Massachusetts banned smoking in the workplace, bars and restaurants in 2004. Rhode Island passed the same bans in 2005. Connecticut and Rhode Island allow smoking at gambling facilities, while Massachusetts is breaking from the industry norm by keeping its gambling venues smoke-free.
Legislation to ban smoking in Rhode Island’s two casinos failed this year, as did an effort to ban pharmacies from selling cigarettes.
Gov. Gina Raimondo and the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management (DEM) opposed a smoking ban at state beaches. Raimondo, a regular beachgoer, favors the voluntary ban currently in place.
“We are not requesting a more heavy-handed approach, because we lack the resources to enforce, and we feel that we are having the same outcome through our current policy,” DEM spokeswoman Gail Mastrati said.
The Boston Globe, however, recently reported that enforcement of smoking bans on Cape Cod beaches has mostly come from beachgoers who remind smokers of the rule when they try to light up.
The concept of self-enforcement of no-smoking laws was advocated by Rep. Lauren Carson, D-Newport, who suggested during a March 11 House hearing that a ban with legal consequences makes it socially unacceptable to smoke on beaches.
“It will just culturally seep into the smokers that remain in the state that they are not to smoke there,” said Carson, who sponsored a bill to ban smoking on state beaches.
The numbers show that smoking is a significant health and pollution problem. Cigarette butts are consistently the most collected type of litter during beach cleanups. The annual International Coastal Cleanup tallied cigarette butts at 33 percent of waste collected during its 2014 litter survey.
Cigarette butts, which are plastic filters, float easily in water and take years to break down but never fully biodegrade. They contain toxins such as lead and arsenic and are found in the stomachs of birds, fish and whales.
In a letter to the Middletown Town Council, David McLaughlin of the advocacy group Clean Ocean Access said a smoking ban sends a message about public health and ocean health. Making it a law simply gives it more teeth.
“Self-enforcement based on signage and outreach will go a long way,” he said. “A codified town ordinance simply empowers the police just like all other laws, if action is required.”