CAROLINA BEACH — On vacation at Carolina Beach, Lisa Poole’s rear end was parked in a lounge chair on the sand Thursday morning. Her butts were tucked in a trash bag.
Poole, a longtime smoker, is sensitive to the fact that not everybody wants the stubs of cigarettes under their feet or turning up in their children’s sand shovels as they dig. Whatever she brings onto the beach, Poole takes off the beach.
“It’s a matter of being a responsible adult and taking care of your trash,” said Poole, who lives in Rome, Ga.
If all of those who like to light up on Carolina Beach were so attentive, the leaders of this coastal community might not have been persuaded this week to approve what appears to be the first smoking ban on a North Carolina beach.
The ban initially was described as a tool for litter management in a town that takes cleanliness so seriously it sweeps its three-plus miles of beach every morning at daybreak. Supporters also say the ban will improve air quality and make the beaches more attractive to families with small children.
Opponents, including some people who don’t smoke, say it goes too far, infringing on people’s rights. Some wonder whether tourism will suffer, and anyhow, they ask, how can the ban be enforced?
Some 130 beach communities in the U.S. have smoking bans, including New York City, but none of them are in North Carolina, where for generations, many people’s vacations were paid for by their labors in tobacco fields or cigarette factories.
But this year, at least three towns have taken up the issue: Kure Beach, adjacent to Carolina Beach, which tabled the idea because of jurisdictional questions; Wrightsville Beach, whose residents will vote on the issue in November; and Carolina Beach, a town with 5,600 year-round residents and a population that swells to as many as 25,000 on busy summer weekends.
Because it’s not clear whether state law allows the town to regulate smoking on the sand, Carolina Beach officials will ask the state legislature to approve their ordinance after lawmakers reconvene in January.
In the meantime, smokers remain free to puff.
A community effort
The beach smoking ban will work only in combination with a public-awareness campaign embraced by local residents and visitors, says Ethan Crouch, a board member of the Cape Fear chapter of the California-based Surfrider Foundation, which supports the ban here and at other beaches.
Officials say such an effort would involve posting signs that ask for help in making Carolina Beach a “smoke-free environment.” Town police wouldn’t be involved, but residents and visitors – with the rule of law behind them – could remind transgressing beachgoers that smoking is not allowed.
“This is not about writing tickets; it’s not about taking people’s rights away,” Crouch said. “It’s about letting people know it’s not OK to leave your butts on the beach. It’s not OK to light up a cigarette or a cigar next to a family with kids and have that secondhand smoke affect their beach experience.”
In municipal law-making terms, the ordinance came about quickly. It was first discussed by council members last month. Between then and the board’s meeting Tuesday night, council members solicited public input, including an informal poll conducted on the website of the Island Gazette, the local weekly newspaper.
Councilman Bob Lewis said the response was overwhelmingly in favor of a smoke-free beach.
Lewis, who walks a mile or two on the beach at least four days a week, said he began stopping on recent jaunts when he saw someone smoking and watching the reactions of people nearby. Some would look at the smoker with annoyance, he said. Others would pick up their chairs, towels and coolers and move away.
Lewis, who confesses to the occasional cigar, became convinced the ban was a good idea.
“I’m not for taking people’s rights away,” he said. “But it seems like most people don’t smoke, and we’re trying to promote a healthy lifestyle with a lot of outdoor activities, and this just fits right in with that.”
A problem with litter
From a refuse perspective, cigarette butts are a persistent problem, town officials say. Even in the early morning, after the beach has been cleaned, the paper-and-plastic nubs lie in the soft deep sand near the dunes, mix with bits of shell closer to the water and cluster in bunches where the tide has carried and dropped them.
To illustrate the litter problem, a Surfrider volunteer conducted eight beach cleanups between the council’s July and August meetings and came to the August session with her spoils: 4,421 cigarette butts stuffed into water jugs and drink bottles.
The council voted 4-1 in favor of the ban; Mayor Ray Rothrock dissented, saying a smoking ban was the wrong solution to a littler problem.
No-littering signs have long been posted at walkways to the beach, and trash cans are plentiful along the strand.
“We also have signs saying no dogs are allowed on the beach during the summer,” said councilman Steve Shuttleworth. “And we still have people bring dogs onto the beach.”
Shuttleworth, who works in real estate, said the ban makes sense for a community that spends hundreds of thousands of dollars a year marketing itself as a destination for families. “For a lot of people, lying in an ash tray is not a great vacation,” Shuttleworth said.
The Pleasure Island Chamber of Commerce, which represents businesses in Carolina Beach and neighboring Kure Beach, hasn’t taken a position on the ordinance. But of the 122 businesspeople who responded to 548 surveys the chamber sent out, 59 percent supported an end to smoking on the beach.
“How will it affect business? I don’t know,” said Greg Reynolds, the chamber’s assistant director.
Tami Dinning and Tina Spreizter drove 11 hours from Cleveland, Ohio, to spend the week at Carolina Beach with eight friends and family members. Both sat with their feet in the surf Thursday, with tiny plastic beach pails dangling off their armchairs in which they placed their cigarette butts. They’re both ultrasound technicians. They both like Marlboro lights.
Normally, they would go to the Outer Banks, they said, but they saved about $1,000 by renting here this year instead. But if a smoking ban goes into effect, they said, they’d think twice before coming back.
“If you’re a smoker, you want to smoke,” Dinning said.
But Iris Senzig of Raleigh says a ban might make her come more often. Senzig comes to Carolina Beach several times a year with her husband, and was there Thursday with her daughter and young grandchildren. She likes the idea of not having to worry about the kids stepping barefoot on a smoldering stub or picking up one as they build castles in the sand.
“Maybe the people who smoke could go to Myrtle Beach,” she said.