New Law Bans Smoking in Parks and Beaches — Except Where It Doesn't 

Gov. Newsom does what his predecessor would not, and signs bill. But why was it amended at the last minute to include several loopholes?

click to enlarge Billions of butts are littered in California alone each year.

Photo by Hebi B. / Pixabay

Billions of butts are littered in California alone each year.

When Gov. Gavin Newsom signed a new law earlier this month that bans smoking in state parks and on state beaches, California's fight against Big Tobacco seemed to gain a step forward.

The legislation, sponsored by East Bay Sen. Steve Glazer, had widespread support from environmental groups and firemen's associations, and its passage marks a turn away from the administration of former Gov. Jerry Brown, who vetoed similar smoking-restriction bills from 2016 to 2018.

Brown's widely quoted explanation was that the proposed bans were "too broad" and "punitive," even though a proposed $250 fine got sliced to $25 in early drafts of the legislation. "If people can't smoke even on a deserted beach, where can they?" Brown wrote in a 2017 veto message.

But the new occupant of the governor's mansion signed Glazer's bill on Oct. 11. The law will take effect January 1, restricting smoking in almost 300 units of the state park system, and could cut into beach litter problems and wildfire risks.

However, some anti-smoking activists are unhappy with the new law, which they see as a watered-down version of the original legislation. Their gripe is that Glazer's final bill, SB 8, included exemptions that could make the new law relatively ineffective and both difficult and costly to enforce.

Research and surveys have shown that about 70 percent of smokers habitually flick their butts onto the ground — behavior that many describe as the last socially acceptable form of littering. Billions of cigarette butts are littered in California alone each year. These familiar white and brown filters often travel with runoff into waterways and the ocean. Along the way, each butt releases toxic chemicals into the environment as it decomposes into tiny fibers of cellulose acetate, a type of plastic. Globally, it's estimated that almost a million tons of cigarette butts enter the environment each year — and education campaigns have made no significant dent in the problem.

Scott St. Blaze, a Los Angeles surfer who wrote the language for the unsuccessful 2016 bill — primarily as a tool to cut into the littering of cigarette butts — doubts the new law will achieve what he hoped it initially would. "It's a piece of crap," Blaze said. "It's full of loopholes."

St. Blaze frequently picks up littered butts on the beach. About three years ago, he concluded that banning smoking was the only way to prevent smokers from littering. This prompted him to write the legislation. He first found a legislative ally in former Sen. Marty Block, of San Diego, who signed on as author of the legislation in 2016.

But in spite of California's proactive record on fighting plastic bags and plastic straws, state leaders and law enforcement agencies have essentially ignored cigarette butt litter. Brown vetoed Block's smoking ban, and would go on to veto five more renditions of the legislation.

This year, Sen. Glazer, representing Contra Costa County, brought forth SB 8 while Levine introduced AB 1718. Though prior versions of the bill called for a $250 fine, Glazer and Levine reduced it to a maximum of $25.

"The fine is like the equivalent of three packs of cigarettes," St. Blaze said. "It's almost nothing."

Another one of the exemptions, quietly added in early September in the final days of the legislative cycle, specifically exempts from the ban smokers who light up on "paved roadways or parking facilities" of state parks and beaches.

Jeremiah Mock, a professor at U.C. San Francisco's Institute for Health and Aging, called the law "a major step forward." But he said the exemption for smoking on roads and in parking areas will exacerbate existing problems associated with litter, fire risk, and secondhand smoke in a variety of ways.

"It'll cluster people into certain areas," creating denser concentrations of secondhand smoke, he said.

While anti-smoking campaigns generally seek to "denormalize" smoking in public, the new law could have the opposite effect, Mock warned.

"The new policy sanctions the behavior, and it specifically designates parking lots as smoking zones in state parks," he said, adding that there is no logical explanation for the loopholes. "There's no public health or environmental health perspective for allowing people to smoke in those areas," said Mock, who has studied the health impacts of smoking and the environmental consequences of littered cigarette butts. "The provisions added to this bill significantly weaken it and undermine its intent."

Mock explained that many people who smoke in state park campgrounds flick their butts into campsite firepits but that smokers wishing to follow the new law will likely walk to the nearest paved surface to smoke. "And then they'll flick their butts off the road," he said. "This could potentially increase the wildfire risk."

Other smokers, Mock added, might interpret campground parking areas to include each individual campsite. California's state park system includes 14,443 such parking spots, each situated adjacent to the affiliated campsite.

The rule could concentrate cigarette litter in waterways, too. That, Mock said, is because parking areas are designed to drain water into culverts that enter creeks or empty directly into the ocean. Given smokers' tendency to litter their butts, this could mean more of the plastic filters entering creeks and the ocean.

Thomas Novotny, a San Diego State University professor of epidemiology and biostatistics who has spent years studying smoker behavior and tobacco waste impacts, said the new law is unnecessarily charitable to smokers, who surveys have shown usually litter their butts even though they understand it is a form of illegal littering.

"We don't want people to smoke in state parks — that's not a right, it's not in the constitution," he said.

The California State Park Rangers Association expressed support for the bill before the exemption was introduced, the group's president Mike Lynch said. After the bill was amended, the association did not change its, but only because there was too little time to do so, he said.

"There was no listed opposition to these bills up to the very end, so I don't see why they made this last-minute giant exemption," he said.

Lynch believes the law will be expensive to enforce. Because smoking will be allowed in some areas and not in others, the park system will be required to post thousands of signs to alert the public to the law and the delineations between smoking and non-smoking areas.

A September legislative analysis, in fact, found that the law will require placing nearly 6,000 signs at the cost of $200 each. Other associated costs will bring the total bill of enforcement to about $2 million.

"It would be much simpler to enforce if it was just an all-out ban," Lynch said.

How and why the legislation that started out three years ago as a hard hit on littering smokers got so watered down isn't clear to anyone. Lynch said he heard a rumor floating around the Capitol Building that an official with the state park system had requested the amendment. But Lynch said he checked with two "high-level officials" in the state park system who said the rumor was not true as far as they knew.

The same exemption was added to a bill almost identical to SB 8, AB 1718 from Assemblyman Marc Levine, which the governor vetoed.

Spokespeople for Glazer and Levine — each of whom was listed as the coauthor on the other's legislation — did not explain why or how the exemption to allow smoking on parking areas and on paved roads was made. Steve Harmon, communications director for Sen. Glazer's office, declined to answer the question and ended the interview.

Levine's chief of staff Terry Schanz called the change "a technical clarification" in an email. "For those individuals that do smoke or vape, paved areas would have the least environmental impact to the state park or beach."

With no straightforward explanation, there is only room to speculate. According to the Center for Tobacco Policy, two of four coauthors of the bill, assemblymembers Lorena Gonzalez and Steven Choi, have taken campaign contributions from tobacco interests. There is no clear evidence that tobacco money swayed the way the legislation was written. But the last-minute amendment raises questions.

"Who would want to carve out an exemption for smokers?" Lynch said. "Not the lung Association. There's just one group that would want that exemption, so it does make you speculate."

Novotny thinks the new law is "better than nothing." The process of creating it, he said, has driven productive conversation about the environmental and social costs of smoking.

"But hopefully next time there will be more guts in the legislature to get this done right," he said.

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