Governor signs bill giving local governments control over cigarette smoking at public beaches and in parks

State Sen. Gruters of Sarasota finally achieves success after years of seeking measure’s passage

‘Smoke-Free Zone’ signs used to be posted at Sarasota County beaches. File photo

Forget the old saying, “Third time’s a charm.” Instead, it took four attempts for state Sen. Joe Gruters, a Sarasota Republican, to amend state law to give local governments the authority to regulate cigarette smoking on public beaches.

Although the Florida Legislature this year approved his 2022 bill in early March, Gov. Ron DeSantis did not sign the measure until June 17, as reported by the News Service of Florida. It will take effect on July 1.

The final version of the bill won state Senate approval upon its second reading on March 2, legislative records show. Gruters had filed the original version on Sept. 15, 2021. The primary sponsors of the Florida House companion bill were Rep. Randy Fine, a Republican who lives in an unincorporated area of Brevard County; and Rep. Thad Altman, R-Indialantic.

The bill makes clear that the state governs the regulation of smoking. “[H]owever,” it continues, “counties and municipalities may further restrict smoking within the boundaries of any public beaches and public parks that they own, except that they may not further restrict the smoking of unfiltered cigars. A municipality may further restrict smoking within the boundaries of public beaches and public parks that are within its jurisdiction but are owned by the county, unless such restriction conflicts with a county ordinance, except that they may not further restrict the smoking of unfiltered cigars.”

The bill won passage in the House on a vote of 105-10; in the Senate, the vote was 30-7, state legislative records note.

In March, after the bill cleared the Legislature, “Gruters said the intention of [it] was to rid beaches of cigarette butts that don’t quickly biodegrade,” the News Service of Florida pointed out.

“If you live near a beach,” Gruters added — as quoted in the article — the number one picked-up item consistently on an annual basis over and over again, are cigarette butts.”

Gruters also noted in the article, “What happens all the time is this second-hand smoke, to me it is disgusting. But what’s even more disgusting is when you reach into the sand and pick up one of those butts. And those filters that are in the cigarettes are what ends up in the water, destroying the environment.”

During a December 2016 presentation to members of the Siesta Key Association(SKA), Stephen Leatherman, a professor at Florida International University in Miamiwho also is known worldwide as “Dr. Beach,” said, “To me, one of the most disgusting things to do” is to sit down on a beach and put his hands down into the sand, only to touch a cigarette butt. Worse, he added, is watching a small child whose parents’ attention has been diverted pick up butts and eat them, as children “eat everything.”

Stephen Leatherman — Dr. Beach — addresses members of the Siesta Key Association on Dec. 1, 2016. File photo

On Miami Beach, he continued, he has at times counted 10 butts per meter. Many foreigners come to that beach, he pointed out, and they “think [of it] as an ashtray, frankly. … These filters last for a long time … and they’re very hard to pick up [during routine cleaning efforts]. … So I’m very much into giving credit to no-smoking beaches …”

Every year, just before Memorial Day weekend begins, Leatherman releases his list of the Top 10 Beaches in the United States. Siesta Key Public Beach has made that list twice over the past 11 years.

“I’m absolutely thrilled” that the governor signed the bill, Leatherman told The Sarasota News Leader during a June 22 telephone interview. “I’m so happy you have such a great state senator.”

He also expressed his appreciation for DeSantis’ action.

Leatherman told the News Leader that he came to Sarasota about two years ago, during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, to meet with Gruters and Virginia Haley, president of the county’s tourism office, Visit Sarasota County, to talk about Gruters’ efforts to get the state law changed. “It’s been a long time coming,” Leatherman said of the ability for local governments to regulate cigarette smoking on beaches and in parks. “I know that Sarasota County will step right up,” he continued, referencing signs that used to stand on the public beaches, warning visitors not to smoke.

He added that he believes other counties, and cities, will take action, as well.

In response to a News Leader inquiry, Sarasota City Attorney Robert Fournier wrote in a June 21 email that he plans to bring up the new law during the administrative remarks section at the end of the City Commission’s July 5 agenda.

City Attorney Robert Fournier makes a point during a City Commission meeting. File photo

“At that time,” Fournier added, “I will outline how the City’s current ordinance (which has not been enforced, but has not been repealed either) should be amended to comply with the new state law if the City Commission would like to exercise its new found authority to prohibit smoking on public beaches and in public parks in the City (with the exception of unfiltered cigars).”

A complaint filed against that city smoking ordinance led to a Dec. 12, 2012 ruling by 12th Judicial Circuit Court Judge Maryann Boehm that state law appeared to prevail over any local government regulations regarding smoking. She cited a July 21, 2011 opinion issued by the Florida Attorney General’s Office involving the St. Johns River Water Management District. As Boehm pointed out, that opinion said, “In sum: The Regulation of smoking is preempted to the state pursuant to [the Clean Indoor Air Act], and the … District may not adopt a policy prohibiting smoking or tobacco use that is broader than the terms of [that statute].”

Prior to its deadline for publication of this issue, the News Leader was unable to get any responses about potential Sarasota County Commission action in response to the new law.

Additionally, the News Leader this week was unable to reach Gruters for comments.

Better health for people and the environment

State Sen. Joe Gruters. Photo from the Florida Senate website

Although opponents of Gruters’ bill contended that no-smoking regulations would harm tourism, Leatherman pointed out, all of Hawaii’s beaches are cigarette-free. “That hasn’t hurt their tourism one iota.”

Moreover, he noted, Spain is moving to outlaw cigarette smoking on its beaches, in spite of the fact that Europeans long have been known for their smoking. Other countries are contemplating the same step, Leatherman said.

The problem with cigarettes on the beach is not just one of harm to the environment, he stressed. As Gruters noted in the News Service of Florida article, smoking is harmful to people who have the habit but also to those who have to deal with secondhand smoke.

“I’ve been on beaches where there’s no wind,” Leatherman said, with people smoking nearby.

Yet, just as he had indicated to the SKA members in that 2016 presentation, he emphasized to the News Leader on June 22, “The biggest thing is the cigarette butts. … Cigarettes are disgusting on both points,” he added — the environment and human health.

In December 2021, he continued, he traveled to Tallahassee to meet with Gruters at the Capitol. “I was in his office for quite some time,” discussing the bill. He reminded Gruters that, in creating his Top 10 Beaches list each year, he gives extra points to beaches where smoking is not allowed.

Gruters told him later that that fact helped persuade legislators to support the bill, Leatherman pointed out. Gruters said he “hammered ’em with it,” Leatherman added.

“I wrote a few op-eds,” too, Leatherman said, to try to garner support for the new law.

All of those efforts “paid off, thank goodness,” Leatherman noted.

A Florida House staff analysis of Gruters 2022 bill cited information from the United Health Foundation and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services: “In 2021, an estimated 15.5 percent of the adults in Florida were tobacco smokers. Tobacco smoke contains over 7,000 chemicals, including hundreds that are toxic and up to 69 that are known to cause cancer. More than 480,000 deaths annually in the United States are caused by cigarette smoking, with exposure to secondhand smoke causing an estimated 41,000 deaths each year.”