Environmentalist Tackles a Florida Law That Preemptively Blocks Smoking Bans

Julie Featherston and her 6-year-old son pick up litter whenever they’re at Treasure Island Beach outside of Tampa. The whopping number of cigarette butts that spanned their local beach alarmed the duo. Featherston’s son worried about the wildlife that might accidentally ingest the tossed cigarette butts; Featherston worried about her son and other children who might pick them up.

So Featherston decided to speak to her commissioners about passing a smoking ban on their beach. But she was informed that she couldn’t because Florida is one of a handful of states with a law that prevents local governments from enacting smoke-free regulations. It states, "This legislation expressly preempts regulation of smoking to the state and supersedes any municipal or county ordinance on the subject."

“It doesn’t make sense why local cities can’t make these decisions for themselves,” Featherston says. “I thought Florida was a home-rule state.”

A week ago, Featherston launched an online petition to “allow Florida cities to pass a ban on cigarettes in public parks and beaches.” Only 120 people have signed the petition so far, but it’s gaining gradual traction across the state.

“Cigarettes and smoke are disgusting,” Brooke Passmore from Cocoa Beach commented, “and they trash the beaches!”

This isn’t Featherston’s first petition. Two months ago, she launched a “No More Straws on Our Beaches” campaign, and almost 50,000 people have signed it. She’s still meeting with commissioners and is optimistic that a plastic straw ban will be passed early next year. She's even launched a website called Be Plastic Free and is working toward earning nonprofit status. Now, Featherston is meeting with commissioners, researching the smoking ban, and figuring out if she can supersede a state law.

Her most recent petition is directed to Gov. Rick Scott and the Florida State House and Senate: “We think city governments should be allowed to protect their citizens by banning cigarettes on public beaches and in city parks,” the petition states. “Cigarette butts are the #1 type of litter worldwide!”

Featherston’s right. The Ocean Conservancy’s annual International Coastal Cleanup reports that worldwide, “cigarette butts have been the single most recovered item since collections began.” Data from 2010 shows confirms that more than 1 million cigarettes or cigarette filters were removed from American beaches and inland waterways. And, of all the states in contiguous United States, Florida has the most expansive coastline: 1,350 miles.

Cigarette butts take 25 years to degrade. In the meantime, if marine life eats a cigarette butt, it can lead to malnutrition or starvation. And even just allowing them to float in the sewer or ocean pollutes the water with harmful carcinogens.

The City of Fort Lauderdale reports collecting 8,000 to 10,000 cigarette butts from a section along Las Olas beach that is only one-third of a mile long. The clean-up alone costs the city more than $31,000 a year. It’s gotten so bad that the city has even passed a No Butts on the Beach, Please! campaign.

“Since our beaches are attractive to tourists and neighbors alike and the nearby businesses depend on people visiting our beaches, it is important to keep them clean,” the city website states. “Please do your part.”

In 2007, Fort Lauderdale commissioners tried to make it a municipal violation to flick cigarette butts on the beach by voting to define cigarette butts as “solid waste” and subject to litter laws. It didn’t happen. But even if it did, Featherston argues that it’s hard to fine someone for littering.

“You have to literally catch someone in the act,” she says. “It’s not efficient.”

But Featherston warns that even banning smoking outright might make the litter situation worst. “If they take out the ashtrays on beaches, assuming no one will smoke there, that will just lead to more cigarette butts winding up on the ground,” she says. “If we pass a smoking ban, we have to be smart about how we go about it.”

She doubts Florida’s current administration will take her petition seriously. But she says she will also try to find loopholes around it, like posting fliers.

“Shaming people isn’t the right way to go,” she says. “Instead, I think if we come at people with information and not blame them for the problem, they’ll agree — even if they are a smoker.”
KEEP NEW TIMES BROWARD-PALM BEACH FREE... Since we started New Times Broward-Palm Beach, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of South Florida, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Jess Swanson is a staff writer at New Times. Born and raised in Miami, she graduated from the University of Miami’s School of Communication and wrote briefly for the student newspaper until realizing her true calling: pissing off fraternity brothers by reporting about their parties on her crime blog. Especially gifted in jumping rope and solving Rubik’s cubes, she also holds the title for longest stint as an unpaid intern in New Times history. She left the Magic City for New York to earn her master’s degree from Columbia University School of Journalism, where she spent a year profiling circumcised men who were trying to regrow their foreskins for a story that ultimately won the John Horgan Award for Critical Science Journalism. Terrified by pizza rats and arctic temperatures, she quickly returned to her natural habitat.
Contact: Jess Swanson