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Smoking bans go to the beach

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LOS ANGELES — Ten years after California set a national precedent by banning smoking in restaurants and bars — and months after prohibiting it within feet of government buildings and playgrounds — many of the state's coastal cities are now banning smoking at the beach.

Health and environmental officials say the moves are a logical extension of smoking bans in other public places and are necessary to meet state and federal antipollution requirements.

Some legislators, however, fear the government is prying too far into private lives, with unnecessary and overly puritanical dictums.

Solana Beach was the first California city to ban smoking at the beach when it enacted its prohibition last September. San Clemente imposed a similar ban last week. Santa Monica is likely to follow suit Tuesday, and Encinitas may vote on the issue within a month.

With the momentum of early victories, anti-smoking activists are taking their arguments to other coastal cities, from San Diego to Manhattan Beach, Hermosa Beach, Huntington Beach, Newport Beach, and beyond.

Los Angeles is also drafting a no-smoking ordinance for Venice, Dockweiler, Will Rogers and Cabrillo beaches.

"This is really a very basic issue, which is that the community is standing up to protect its youth and citizens from tobacco smoke and litter," says Judy Strang, executive director of Youth Tobacco Prevention Corps, a group of teen activists that set the legislation in motion two years ago at Solana Beach.

The group, which seeks smoke-free beaches, parks, and recreational areas, approached three city councils in 2002 for provisional one-week bans.

After a routine beach cleanup produced 6,300 butts in one hour at the 1.5-mile-long Solana Beach, the group took a tub of cigarette refuse to city hall. They filmed interviews of residents, 91 percent of whom approved the ban. Partnering with the American Heart Association and the Surfrider's Foundation, they barraged city hall with testimonies and requests for action.

Months later, a more formal Solana Beach cleanup event still garnered 230 pounds of refuse, 60 percent of which consisted of wet cigarette butts.

It was a wake-up call for the tiny beachfront town from both quality-of-life and legal standpoints. "We are required by federal and state laws to keep water and beaches clean, so this really got the attention of everyone in government," says Matt Rodriguez, assistant city manager at Solana Beach. Cigarette butts do not biodegrade, and they contain 200 known poisons, 63 of which are shown to cause cancer. The city council passed the ban unanimously and has reported no formal resistance or complaints since.

In Sam Clemente, the issue was more contentious. "I don't smoke and I don't like the smell, but I have never in 20 years of living on the beach heard anyone complain about second-hand smoke or cigarette butts," says Wayne Eggleston, one of two city council members who voted against the measure. He says more cigarette butts wash up from storm drains or are flicked by passing drivers than are left by smokers in the sand.

And, he says, if officials wanted to get serious about litter, they would prohibit soda cans and candy wrappers, which he says present far more of a problem. "I was really quite astounded by this vote," says Mr. Eggleston. "I just think there is a limit to what government should dictate to its citizens."

But activists and health officials point to statistics. Only 17 percent of Californians are estimated to smoke, and, according to Environmental Protection Agency data, 50,000 lives are claimed each year from second-hand smoke.

"This is long overdue," says Glenn Madalon, executive director of the Orange County chapter of the American Lung Association. "In any public gathering place where you have families, children, and elderly, you should not have to sit next to someone smoking and have to inhale it."

Many residents agree. The beach smoking ban is "great," says Dorothy Snook, a retired teacher's aide, who spent a recent afternoon at Solana Beach with her husband Darrell and a wet chocolate Labrador retriever named Sammy. "It's hard to enforce, but it's another deterrent. It gets the message across that it's not good to smoke, especially for the young people."

How the bans should be advertised and enforced are questions communities say they are currently debating. Critics question additional costs for security and signs and don't think lifeguards and other parks and recreational personnel should have to enforce the ordinances.

"Lifeguards should not be diverting their eyes even for a nanosecond from safety and life issues to tell someone not to smoke," says Joe Anderson, another city council member who voted 'no' on the new San Clemente law.

Solana Beach has not yet appropriated additional funds for enforcement. Under the Santa Monica proposal, citations that carry a $250 fine will help pay for added enforcement and signs.

Randy Dotinga contributed to this report from Solana Beach.