PROVIDENCE - On a fall day in 2010, nearly 2,100 volunteers scoured Rhode Island’s beaches for litter. They carried off syringes, glass bottles, refrigerators, and 43,600 cigarette butts.
A state lawmaker is hoping to reduce the trash by making the Ocean State the first to ban smoking at all public beaches. The proposal by Representative Richard Morrison would also apply to public parks, playgrounds, and pedestrian plazas.
“The state has the right to protect the health of our citizens,’’ said Morrison, a Bristol Democrat. “I’m not trying to take away anyone’s rights, but we no longer allow smoking in the workplace, in restaurants, on buses. I don’t think it’s a good idea to allow it where families and young children are.’’
Most states now restrict smoking in indoor public areas, and cities including New York and San Diego prohibit smoking at community beaches. Maine bans smoking at its state beaches, but the prohibition does not extend to local beaches.
Rhode Island’s statewide smoking ban was enacted in 2005 and covers bars, restaurants, and almost all other indoor public locations. If the Morrison bill passes, Rhode Island would be the first state to outlaw smoking at all public beaches, according to the American Lung Association.
There’s no vote scheduled for the legislation. No group testified in opposition at a recent hearing on the proposal, though state environmental officials expressed concern about how they would enforce a smoking ban.
Opponents are easier to find. East Providence resident Richard Haynes said such proposals go too far.
“I don’t see how people can get cancer from a cigarette that’s smoked in the open air,’’ he said as he puffed on a cigarette in Kennedy Plaza, a busy outdoor area in downtown Providence.
But Tarrah Nickerson of West Warwick, also a smoker, said she understands that many Rhode Islanders would like to keep tobacco smoke out of beaches or parks. She said lawmakers should consider designated smoking areas at state beaches.
Environmental groups are lining up to support the proposed ban, saying that cigarette butts are the most common type of litter found on beaches and in state waterways.
Cigarette filters contain concentrated amounts of chemicals contained in tobacco smoke, making them hazardous to humans and wildlife, said Eugenia Marks of the Audubon Society of Rhode Island.