On 4-1 vote, County Commission approves ban on cigarette smoking on county beaches and in county parks as of Oct. 1

Extensive public awareness campaign planned first

It took slightly less than 8 minutes on July 11 for the Sarasota County Commission to approve an ordinance that will implement a ban on cigarette smoking at all county-owned beaches and in all county parks.

The measure will go into effect on Oct. 1, Nicole Rissler, director of the county’s Parks, Recreation and Natural Resources Department (PRNR), told the commissioners. She also indicated a “60-day lead time” for staff to post the appropriate new signage.

The ordinance defines “Smoking” as meaning “inhaling, exhaling, burning, carrying, or possessing any lighted tobacco product, including cigarettes, pipe tobacco, and any other lighted tobacco product …”

The new county regulation will allow the smoking of unfiltered cigars, as required by state law.

During her July 11 presentation, Rissler explained that, over the past 18 months, the PRNR staff had worked “to replace all of our park rule signs, in all 160 parks.” Therefore, as she noted in another slide, a new section of each of those signs will feature the “No Smoking” advisory, with a reference to the applicable section of the county Code of Ordinances.

Staff had been working to get rid of the kiosk signs that had been in place for more than a decade, Rissler pointed out. The new signs feature the greeting “Welcome” at the top, followed by symbols alerting visitors to what they can and cannot do, in accord with provisions of the County Code.

As PRNR has to replace those new signs — because of vandalism, for example, she added — or as new parks are opened, an updated version of the signs will include a symbol denoting the smoking ban.

In the meantime, Rissler said, “There’s an extensive marketing and communications plan behind this” that will be launched in early August. That will include signage, she explained, along with posts on social media, engagement with members of the news media, videos on the county’s Facebook page, notices on the county website, announcements, banners — at Siesta Public Beach and at athletic parks, a slide noted — and press releases.

Rissler showed the board members examples of illustrations that will be part of the campaign; all three signs had the heading, “No Butts About It.” One depicts a beach, the second features a pickleball court, and the third shows a palm, denoting parks.

The vote on implementing the prohibition was 4-1, with Commissioner Michael Moran in the minority. During the last discussion of the issue prior to this week’s meeting — on April 25 — Moran contended that the board members should be wary of “trying to control people’s behavior.” He suggested, as an alternative, that the commissioners direct staff to look into stiffer penalties to try to reduce the amount of litter resulting from smoking on the beaches and within parks.

“I get it with the youth parks,” Moran added during that discussion, “and you can have kids on the beach.” However, he said, “I just feel a real slippery slope there again of government … intrusion into people’s lives.”

Protecting public health and enjoyment of public facilities

Commissioner Mark Smith, a Siesta Key architect who was elected to the District 2 seat in November 2022, had pushed for the board members to proceed with putting a new ban into effect.

For years prior to a December 2012 ruling by a 12th Judicial Circuit Court judge that the state was responsible for any regulation of smoking, the county did forbid use of cigarettes on the beaches. A lawsuit filed against the City of Sarasota resulted in Judge Maryann Boehm’s decision.

On July 1, 2022, a modified state law went into effect, allowing local governments to implement cigarette-smoking restrictions on beaches and in parks. State Sen. Joe Gruters, R-Sarasota, had pushed for four years for such a change in the Florida Statutes. During the 2022 legislative session, “Dr. Beach” — Stephen Leatherman, a Florida International University professor known for issuing a Top 10 U.S. Beaches list before every Memorial Day weekend — worked with Gruters to encourage lawmakers to support the bill.

Leatherman told the News Leader that he had stressed to the legislators that, as he prepares his Top 10 Beaches lists, he awards extra points to any beach where cigarette smoking is prohibited. That helped persuade them to support Gruters’ 2022 bill, Leatherman added.

Among the findings of fact included in the new county ordinance, No. 8 says, “The litter caused by those who improperly dispose of cigarette butts within public beaches and parks is difficult to remove, can lead to severe burns and/or ingestion hazards to park patrons and wildlife, can significantly detract from a healthy environment, and reduce the enjoyment of the County’s beaches and parks for those individuals and families who want to enjoy a healthy environment, free of smoking-related pollution and hazards.”

During the July 11 County Commission meeting, Rissler reminded the board members that they had asked her to research how other, nearby communities have dealt with aspects of the smoking ban. The PRNR staff’s recommendation that a violation of the ordinance could result in a fine up to $500 is consistent with the actions of the other local governments, she noted.

Further, Rissler continued, she and her staff heard from representatives of those other local governments that they wished they had invested more time in educating the public about the ban before putting it into effect.

As shown on the slide Rissler referenced, the Cities of Venice and Sarasota, the Town of Longboat Key and Charlotte County all have implemented the cigarette-smoking prohibition.

Following Rissler’s remarks, Commissioner Smith told her, “You did a wonderful job. Thank you. Those of us who are on the beaches appreciate it.”

“I’m so happy that we’re going to have this [measure] back with us,” Smith said.

After he made the motion to approve the new ordinance, Smith pointed out, “It’s almost common sense. If someone is relaxing on a beach or in a park, you don’t like to smell smoke any more than you like to smell it in the restaurants.” He added, “The parks are here to enjoy a healthy lifestyle, so I’m all for this.”

He also told his colleagues that, following the birth of his first child, he placed a “No Smoking” sign above the doorbell of his house. The first time his mother — “an avid smoker” — arrived at his home after he took that action, Smith continued, she asked him where she was supposed to smoke. He told her that she could smoke outside.

Commissioner Neil Rainford seconded the motion, adding that no one wants their children playing in a park where the youngsters are exposed to secondhand smoke. “I’m all for it,” he added of the ban.

Commissioner Joe Neunder said, “Happy to see this for the protection of our community and our kids.”

Neunder did ask Rissler about something he said he believed he had read in the materials that she and her staff had provided in the agenda packet. Can an offender end up being punished through jail time?, he asked.

That provision is in the ordinance, Rissler replied. “It’s consistent with some of our other park penalties.”

“Wow! OK,” Neunder told her. “Behave out there,” he added as advice to his constituents.

Chair Ron Cutsinger noted that no member of the public had signed up to address the commissioners during the public hearing that day. Then Cutsinger called for the vote, which produced the 4-1 result.