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No butts about it

State and county lawmakers move to snuff out smoking in public parks and beaches

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The sights and smells of smokers lighting up on state coastlines will soon be a thing of the past if a long-awaited ban wins final approval from state senators and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Senate Bill 4, also known as the No Smoking at State Parks and Beaches Act, is the latest in a slew of cancer-fighting legislation sponsored by Sen. Jenny Oropeza (D-Long Beach). Oropeza successfully battled her own bout with liver cancer as a State Assemblywoman and authored a measure banning smoking in shared public areas in 2007. The following year, she sponsored a bill making smoking in cars with minors illegal.

Oropeza’s spokesman, Ray Sotero, said the lawmaker’s concern isn’t secondhand smoke or punishing smokers, but protecting the coastlines from being “soiled” by cigarette butts and reducing the risk of wildfires at state parks.

“She believes that if people smoke responsibly, that would be fine,” he said. “Unfortunately, she’s seen firsthand that too many smokers are irresponsible and disregard where they dispose of their smoking materials.”

Along with the San Luis Obispo City Council’s approval of a ban on smoking in downtown SLO on April 6, the latest round of anti-smoking legislation represents a sea change of public sentiment on the issue, Sotero said.

 State senators originally passed the statewide ban in May 2009 by a vote of 21 to 14. Sen. Abel Maldonado (R-Santa Maria) was the only Republican to vote in favor. After a lengthy amendment process, the Assembly followed suit on March 22, 2010, approving the bill 42-27. Assemblyman Pedro Nava (D-Santa Barbara) supported the legislation, while Assemblyman Sam Blakeslee (R-San Luis Obispo) opposed it.

As of April 13, the Senate was holding off on a final reconciliation vote on the bill, though supporters voiced confidence they had enough votes to get the ban to the governor’s desk.

Since being drafted, the bill has faced steady opposition from smokers’ rights groups and other liberty-minded organizations.

Maryetta Ables is president of FORCES, an international nonprofit organization opposing smoking bans. She said the green movement is being used as an excuse to push forward legislation that infringes on freedom.

“There’s no scientific evidence to justify any smoking ban based on the studies that they use,” Ables said. “If [the environment] is the only reason they can come up with for banning, buy some ashtrays.

“Our national sovereignty is more important than a few cigarette butts,” she added.

According to literature supplied by Oropeza’s office, cigarette butts can take up to 15 years to biodegrade and contain more than 165 toxins. The lawmaker also cited a report from the California Department of Forestry blaming smoking for causing more than 100 forest fires each year in the state.

If passed, the ban would take effect in 2011, carrying a fine of at least $100 for violators. California State Parks would be responsible for posting no smoking signs at all parks and beaches, with enforcement beginning after 30 days.

During the amending process, State Parks officials argued some jurisdictions were too large to allow for adequate enforcement with current staffing. Legislators reached a concession exempting campgrounds and parking areas—including the entire Oceano Dunes State Vehicular Recreation Area—from the ban.

“When they give general exceptions to campgrounds and day-use parking areas, that’s essentially what the SVRA is,” said Oceano Dunes Superintendent Andrew Zilke. “When you buy a camping permit, that essentially becomes your domicile. Your campsite is your home, so you have the same type of rights associated with it.”

While the ban would be unenforceable in the SVRA’s day-use areas, Zilke said most of the park doesn’t fit into those categories. He said he’d like the latitude to close off areas of the park to smokers where a careless disposal could start fires in dense native vegetation.

 “From our perspective as an agency trying to enforce it, we will do what we’re directed to do by law,” he said. “It would be nice to have a little flexibility built into it so we can identify areas that are closed or open. That would be ideal for us.”

Provided the exemption for the Dunes remains in the final piece of legislation, State Parks would still be responsible for enforcing the ban at Pismo Beach. Enforcement in all the state parks would be left up to the discretion of park rangers and other law enforcement officers, who would have the option to issue warnings for a first time offense.

Gov. Schwarzenegger hasn’t yet made it known publicly if he’ll sign the ban, though he has signed Sen. Oropeza’s two previous anti-smoking bills.

“We’re hopeful that our cigar-stomping Governor will again sign a ban addressing the issue of smoking,” Sotero said on behalf of the senator.

Jeremy Thomas is a staff writer at the Sun, New Times’ sister paper to the south. Contact him at jthomas@santamariasun.com.

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