Thursday, Aug. 9, 2007 | When asked if he was aware of San Diego’s smoking ban at city beaches and parks, Clay Peck immediately extinguished his just-lit cigarette in the sand. Sitting 20 feet behind a lifeguard stand on Pacific Beach, he sheepishly admitted he knew about it, and in fact had first heard about the ban when it was enacted last summer.
“There’s signs everywhere,” he said of the ordinance. He called it “a bunch of crap.”
Nearly a year after San Diego’s smoking ban went into effect, beachgoers like Peck are still smoking on the beach. Police officers have issued two citations since Aug. 19, 2006, and lifeguards have issued 40. The ordinance covers all city beaches between Torrey Pines and Point Loma, as well as Balboa and Mission Bay parks.
Violators can get stuck with a misdemeanor and a fine that can run up to $400. Often, the smoking violation is paired with another charge, such as having an open container of alcohol on the boardwalk, said Deputy City Attorney Teresa Martin.
Lifeguards prefer to educate beachgoers who light up rather than serve them with a citation, as many offenders are from out of town and unaware of the law, said Maurice Luque, San Diego Fire-Rescue Department spokesman. Looking for violators is not their primary mission, and safety-related actions will always take precedence, he said.
The City Council amended the ban this summer to include the boardwalk, seawall, fishing pier and the Cabrillo Bridge, which leads into Balboa Park. It went into effect June 20.
Deputy City Attorney Alex Sachs, who penned the amendment, said he has been personally disappointed by people’s reaction to the ban. He goes to Balboa Park often and still sees some lighting up. “There needs to be a heightened effort at education,” he said.
San Diego Police Officer Yesenia Quintos said she’s been called a Communist for enforcing the ban. When confronted, violators sometimes feign ignorance. “They’ll play the ‘Oh, I thought I could smoke here’ game,” she said. “A lot of information gets passed by word of mouth. We hope they’re telling each other the right thing.”
Before the ordinance passed, smokers’ rights advocates claimed it would keep tourists from choosing San Diego as their vacation destination. But Quintos said she hasn’t seen any discernable drop in beach attendance. “It’s not like people look at a brochure telling them what cities are smoker-friendly,” she said.
Quintos said an alcohol ban would probably be much more devastating for tourism, as San Diego beaches currently draw imbibers from Orange and Los Angeles counties, both of which prohibit tippling on their beaches.
Concerns about smoking litter propelled local chapter members of the Surfrider Foundation to lobby the City Council in favor of the ban last year. The group participates in the annual Fourth of July beach clean up, and chapter coordinator Bill Hickman estimated the group gathered half as many cigarettes this year than last year, though he has yet to see the hard data.
“Unfortunately the cigarette litter issue has delineated into a huge problem, a huge issue, especially for the beaches,” Hickman said. “The filters are made out of a type of plastic that doesn’t biodegrade. It’s been known to be ingested by marine life. Birds have been seen making nests out of them. Sometimes you even see kids going to the beach playing with them, putting them on a sandcastle or something. It’s kind of a bummer.”
Peck, the beachgoer, said he agrees with the environmental purposes of the ban, holding up the beer can he uses as an ashtray. If people had just cleaned up after themselves, perhaps they would still be allowed to smoke on the beach, he said. “People litter and it’s not cool.”