2015-06-04 / Front Page

Smoking Ban Nears Approval

By Barry Bridges

A smoking ban in Newport recreational areas moved a step closer to reality on Wednesday, May 27, when councilors gave their preliminary approval to an ordinance that would prohibit cigarettes, cigars, or other tobacco-related products from being used on public beaches and parks, including the Cliff Walk.

The measure, first recommended by Councilor Justin McLaughlin in September, was endorsed with a 6-1 vote on first reading. First Ward Councilor Marco Camacho cast the dissenting vote.

City leaders gave their OK notwithstanding opposition from the city’s Tree and Open Space Commission and Beach Commission. Both of those boards brought up concerns about enforcement, sign pollution, negative impacts on tourism, and a conflict with the free use of public areas.

Addressing those objections, Councilor John Florez pointed to studies finding that tourists are very sensitive to aesthetics and that “litter is one of the more important aspects for tourists when they pick a beach to go to.” He was similarly not swayed by the enforceability and sign pollution arguments, reporting that 232 cities have already banned smoking on their shores. “We’re arguably the most prominent seaside city in the Ocean State,” he said, “and given what we know about the hazards of smoking and how it affects our environment…I think this is something we need to take seriously and do right here in our own community.”

Councilor Naomi Neville agreed. “I think this will keep our beaches cleaner and it’s better for everyone’s health,” she said. Kathryn Leonard wanted to see a better implementation plan, but she balanced that with her health and pollution concerns and also supported the initiative.

Interim City Manager Joseph Nicholson reminded lawmakers that it’s the city’s job to enforce regulations. “Under the charter, if you pass an ordinance, it’s the city administration’s responsibility to enforce it,” he advised. “How aggressive that will be is another issue, but we will come up with an internal plan like we do for all ordinances. You set the policy, and it’s our obligation to carry out the policy.”

Neville added, “I think a lot of these rules are enforced by peer pressure…. It’s not that the police have to do it as much as those around us.”

David McLaughlin of Clean Ocean Access spoke in favor of the prohibition and confirmed Neville’s observations. “Everything that I’ve read really supports the concept of self-enforcement,” he said. “But a codified ordinance helps the city to take action with violators.” He also emphasized the risks posed by second-hand smoke and described local environmental impacts. “In the last three years, we’ve collected over 100,000 items of trash on the shorelines. Over 26,000 of those items have been cigarette butts.”

While acknowledging that there are legitimate concerns, Camacho declined to join his colleagues in moving the proposal to the next step. “I think that the right of the majority to not have smoke blown in their faces, literally, is something that we should protect,” he stated, “but we also should be protecting the minority position and recognizing that smoking is still legal…. In balance, I think that we’re going a little too far with an outright ban.” He suggested designated smoking zones, as well as educational efforts to remind beachgoers to exercise their rights with common sense and courtesy.

Councilor Justin McLaughlin said that he was “excited” about the new law, but offered a realistic outlook. “I don’t expect 100 percent compliance in the first year, but I think that within five years nobody will be smoking at our beaches. It will be part of our culture and people in those places will appreciate it.”

He noted similar actions moving forward elsewhere. “The state’s about to do it and Middletown’s about to do it. It’s the right thing to do and it’s the right time to do it.”

The measure is scheduled to receive its second and final reading on June 10, and will take effect immediately if it once again finds strong backing.

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