Once again, Sen. Gruters seeking change in state law to allow local governments to ban smoking on public beaches and in public parks

Gruters has been trying to win passage of such a measure since 2019

State Sen. Joe Gruters. News Leader image

In 2019, as a newly elected member of the Florida Senate, Republican Joe Gruters of Sarasota filed a bill that sought to achieve a long-desired goal of Sarasota county commissioners: banning smoking on the public beaches.

Gruters failed in that attempt, and, so far, in each subsequent attempt he has made in the Legislature. Yet, this year, he is trying again for success.

As county commissioners learned in 2013 — when then-board member Joe Barbetta brought up the idea of a ban — a December 2012 court ruling involving the City of Sarasota pointed to a state law that prevents local governments from imposing smoking restrictions on public property.

“This is really disturbing to me,” Barbetta said during the Jan. 8, 2013 County Commission meeting. “I can’t believe this is happening.”

Gruters filed his latest bill, SB 224, on Sept. 15, 2021. On Nov. 3, 2021, it won a favorable vote — 8-0 in favor of it — in the Senate’s Community Affairs Committee. With the formal opening of the 2022 legislative session on Jan. 11, the bill was introduced in the Senate. Since then, its webpages show that it has made no further progress.

A companion House Bill — 105 — was filed the same day in September 2021. Thus far, it has had a favorable review in the Professions & Public Health Subcommittee of the House. On Feb. 1, it was added to the Environment, Agriculture & Flooding Subcommittee’s agenda.

State Rep. Randy Fine. Image courtesy Florida House

The primary sponsors of the House version are state Rep. Randy Fine, a Republican who lives in an unincorporated area of Brevard County; and state Rep. Thad Altman, R-Indialantic.

A bounty of facts for consideration

An analysis prepared by the professional staff of the Senate Committee on Community Affairs explains that Senate Bill 224 would amend the Florida Clean Indoor Air Act, “which regulates vaping and tobacco smoking in Florida. The bill allows counties and municipalities to restrict smoking within the boundaries of any of the public beaches and public parks they own. Currently, the regulation of smoking is preempted to the state, and counties and municipalities are prohibited from regulating smoking. ‘Smoking’ is defined in [Chapter 386 of the Florida Statutes] as ‘inhaling, exhaling, burning, carrying, or possessing any lighted tobacco product, including cigarettes, cigars, pipe tobacco, and any other lighted tobacco product.’

“The bill also prohibits smoking within the boundaries of a state park and changes the title of the ‘Florida Clean Indoor Air Act’ to the ‘Florida Clean Air Act’ to account for the broader application of the act proposed in the bill.”

A Florida House staff analysis of HB 105 explains that the effect of the proposed changes would be authorization for counties and municipalities “to further restrict smoking within the boundaries of any public beaches and public parks they own. Municipalities may further restrict smoking within the boundaries of public beaches and public parks that are within their jurisdiction, but owned by the county, unless such restriction conflicts with county ordinance.”

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

Both the Florida House and Senate analyses note that the state has “67 separate county park systems and more than 400 separate municipal park systems.”

Additionally, the House analysis points out, “Florida has 825 miles of sandy coastline, attracting over 19 million tourists each year. A significant portion of Florida’s beaches is publicly owned, including federally-owned areas managed by the National Park Service, parts of Florida’s 175 state parks, and the many beaches owned and managed by local governments on the coast. In general, access to these beaches is free through the numerous public access points along the coast,” it adds. However, the analysis does note that “some state parks, counties and municipalities charge an access fee.”

Moreover, citing information from the United Health Foundation and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, that analysis says, “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.”

Siesta volunteers assisting Keep Sarasota County Beautiful gather with cigarette butts they gathered on the beach on March 25, 2017. Photo courtesy Sarasota County

If the Legislature approves the changes Gruters and the House bill sponsors have proposed, and Gov. Ron DeSantis signs the new law, it would take effect on July 1, the staff analyses point out.

Gruters’ 2019 bill would have allowed a law enforcement officer to issue a citation to a person smoking tobacco on a public beach, with a civil penalty of $25 or 10 hours of community service.

The bill he filed in the 2021 legislative session essentially contained the same provisions as the latest version. That bill won two favorable committee votes — in Community Affairs and Environment and Natural Resources. The last listing for it was on April 21, 2021, when it was on the agenda for the Senate Rules Committee. A notation accompanying that listing on the bill’s webpage said the hearing was “Temporarily Postponed.”

The Legislature adjourned its 2021 session on April 30.

The companion bill in the House last year never made it out of the Environment, Agriculture & Flooding Subcommittee.

This year, the Legislature is scheduled to adjourn on March 11. Earlier sessions are conducted during election years.