Wildwood’s beach stretches 1.5 miles in length, and at some points, the walk from the Boardwalk to the water is up to 500 yards. On any given summer day, thousands of people cram onto the seemingly endless sandy expanse.
That will make enforcing a new statewide beach smoking ban nearly impossible, Mayor Ernie Troiano says.
With summer’s unofficial start a little more than a month away, shore towns are trying to figure out how to police smoking on their shorelines. And the challenge may be double for municipalities with vast beaches, like Wildwood and Atlantic City, where drinking and smoking are part of the scene on Memorial Day weekend.
“If you have a small beach, it’s not a problem,” Troiano said. “If you have a big beach, it only becomes a problem. ... We could have 300,000 people on the beach. I don’t know how you control that.”
The state law, which went into effect in January, gives towns two options: Prohibit smoking entirely or carve out up to 15% of its beaches for smokers.
Troiano said Wildwood is not allowing smoking on the sand at all. Doing otherwise, he said, could lead to quarrels over why certain sections are smoke-free and others aren’t.
But how the ban will be enforced is still up in the air.
Troiano expects it will be enforced largely through complaints, he said, since the city does not have the resources to place additional police on the beach. Already, Troiano said, there are three or four officers who patrol the beach. To strictly enforce the ban, he guesses that number would have to double.
“There’s no way I’m going to put additional officers there to make sure people aren’t smoking,” he said.
Asked how the ban would be enforced in Atlantic City, a spokeswoman for the Mayor’s Office said lifeguards.
“We are fortunate to live so close to the beach, clean beaches and clean air are essential to our quality of life,” said Christina Bevilacqua, spokeswomen for the city, in statement. “The City of Atlantic City feels that our Beach Patrol functions as the eyes and ears of our beaches.”
Banning beach smoking has been a years-long battle in New Jersey, pitting environmentalists against municipalities and those who want the freedom to light up.
Proponents of the law, which passed the Legislature last year, sounded the alarm about the tens of thousands of cigarette butts discarded along the shore each year that could wash into the ocean and harm marine life. Some also fear the negative health effects from breathing in secondhand smoke.
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In 2017, Longport became the first town in the area to ban smoking on its beaches.
Enforcement hasn’t been burdensome in the tiny borough, Sgt. Ray Burgen said.
The Beach Patrol has acted as eyes and ears for police, politely asking smokers to put out their cigarettes if a person complains, and only rarely calling the authorities if trouble arises.
With a family-friendly beach, Burgen said there were few smokers to begin with. No additional officers were assigned to the beach.
“We hardly get any complaints here,” Burgen said. “There are no bars or restaurants around like in Margate or Ventnor. ... It’s never been an issue.”
During a weekly meeting before the 2017 season, Longport Beach Patrol Chief Matt Kelm said lifeguards were taught how to handle the ordinance. Their focus, he said, should be on the water, but if a person approaches lifeguards voicing a complaint, they can either call police or inform the smoker of the ban.
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In the past two years, Kelm said he has only called law enforcement once, when a beachgoer lit up a cigar.
“In a case where someone becomes belligerent, it becomes a police matter,” Kelm said.
Ocean City also stopped allowing smoking on its beaches last summer, but with the statewide ban in effect, enforcement will be stricter, said police Chief John Prettyman.
Prettyman said the city spent summer 2018 educating the public about the new rule. Smokers were reminded of the new ordinance and issued warnings.
He said police relied on beachgoers to call in and alert authorities.
The rules will be enforced more aggressively this year. Like other towns, Ocean City is putting together its “seasonal operational plan” to determine whether more officers should be deployed on the sand.
“The game plan is still being determined,” Prettyman said.