Smokeless at the Jersey Shore

While a smoking ban on beaches and parks may secure New Jersey’s standing as a leading nanny state, it would be a savvy economic strategy to bolster the state’s billion-dollar tourism industry while saving lives.

A couple of Shore towns have already enacted smoking limits. But at the rate individual communities are going to ban smoking on the beaches, it could take years to safeguard large numbers of bathers from the health risks of secondhand smoke.

Even better, a North Jersey lawmaker, State Sen. Barbara Buono (D., Middlesex), plans to introduce a measure to ban smoking on all 127 miles of Jersey beaches and in parks, citing “empirical data which support the passage of this public-health and environmental-protection measure.”

Indeed, the health risks of secondhand smoke are being realized as never before. Buono quotes statistics on exposure to secondhand smoke causing 50,000 deaths a year nationally.

Meanwhile, recent studies demonstrate significant public health benefits of smoke-free laws beyond just the impact of prompting smokers to quit.

One study found that indoor smoke-free laws led to a 17 percent drop in heart attacks after just one year, translating into 150,000 fewer annual heart attacks if smoke-free laws were in place across the country.

Another study published in the August issue of the American Journal of Public Health found that casino workers in Pennsylvania risked death five times more than coal miners, who work in one of the deadliest occupations. That makes a compelling case to close the loopholes that permit smoking in Atlantic City casinos and those outside Philadelphia.

On tourism and environmental grounds, the argument is just as strong for a beach smoking ban.

Consider this statistic: 41,900 cigarette butts. That’s the number collected by volunteers last year during two three-hour beach sweeps.

Beyond saving the cost to communities of cleaning up those cigarette butts, a beach smoking ban would enhance the Shore as a destination by closing down one of the largest outdoor ashtrays.

From a tourism standpoint, a smoking ban would build on a winning asset. The Shore was recently named a national “Top 10 Beach Destination” by Tripadvisor, in good company with Hawaii, Miami Beach, and Cape Cod.

“Tourism remains a lifeblood industry for New Jersey’s larger prosperity and economic standing,” wrote Nina Mitchell Wells, who oversees the state’s Division of Travel and Tourism as secretary of state. She added that in 2008, tourists spent $38.8 billion and helped support 450,000 jobs.

Considering the millions spent annually promoting New Jersey visitor destinations, a statewide beach smoking ban would be a minimal investment — the cost of no-smoking signs, basically — with a potentially huge payoff.

Jersey also stands to gain from the growth of ecotourism by visitors eager to bird-watch at the Shore and hike and climb in the parks. Clearing the air at the Shore and in the parks would only enhance the state’s attraction for these visitors.

There’s certainly room for a spirited debate later this fall on Buono’s smoking bans in parks, but her proposal to ban lighting up at the Shore is a winner.