The summer season beginning this month will be the first in which the anti-smoking crusade has reached all the public beaches of New Jersey. A new state law requires all municipalities to either ban smoking from their beaches completely or designate up to 15 percent of them as smoking-allowed sections.
That percentage isn’t accidental. That’s the share of the adult population of America’s 38 million adult smokers.
Unlike many moral crusades, that against smoking the past half century has been based in science. Tobacco use remains the leading avoidable cause of mortality. As tobacco’s harmful effects on consumers and those in their immediate vicinity became known, prohibitions and restrictions on smoking and other forms of tobacco use spread to nearly every public space. Now it’s at the beach, practically the epitome of freedom from the machinations of society.
Many Jersey Shore towns already have or will ban smoking completely and enforce it. That’s fine. Others will allow it in designated smoking areas, and that’s fine too. And many more will ban smoking on their beaches but only enforce it if there is a problem and someone complaints, which is also fine. These approaches may seem to be in conflict, but they are all appropriate responses when moral clarity is lacking.
The anti-tobacco effort had such clarity as long as its efforts were based on avoiding harms convincingly demonstrated by science. The harm to users fully supports restrictions and punitive taxes on the sale of tobacco products, for example. Once the harm to others from secondary smoke in confined areas was demonstrated, prohibitions on smoking in public places such as restaurants and workplaces were justified. These then were extended to some open-air locations, such as boardwalks and public parks, which is something of a fudge since the science is lacking that secondary smoke causes significant harm to others there. Avoidance of fire and litter were added as secondary reasons.
With the advent of electronic cigarettes, the science and the clear support for restricting the freedom of adults to consume nicotine in the open air has diminished further. Now nonsmokers often don’t even know when someone nearby outdoors is vaping, and studies have yet to make a convincing case that it is harming them.
This moral ambiguity is why the status of beach smoking can’t be clear and simple. Towns, smokers and nonsmokers will figure out an appropriate balance over time. Smokers who can’t do without lighting up will avoid towns with strict bans. Some may be OK with towns that give smokers the equivalent of the old smoking sections allowed in offices, restaurants and such — ie., a place to smoke near the trash cans, behind the dunes or on the promenade, as three Cape May County municipalities plan. Or maybe some towns will provide smokers with their own section of beach down to the water, and they’ll choose to go there.
Since electronic cigarettes that produce no smoke can be used discreetly and produce no cigarette butts to discard, they will be used at all beaches. Surely more smokers will take up vaping than quit cigarettes in response to bans on beach smoking — and that may be the greatest health benefit of the state law.
However this sorting out of beach smoking behavior goes, the process will be less acrimonious if people stay focused on the science behind society’s restrictions. The goal remains encouraging people to minimize the harm to themselves and others from tobacco products, and the most effective approach will remain being understanding and fair to everyone.