'It's time to get smoking off the beach.' Proposed N.J. ban awaits approval from Gov. Murphy

TRENTON — The legislature on Thursday approved a bill that would limit smoking on public beaches and ban it in public parks, the latest move in a long effort to prohibit smoking  at the Jersey Shore.

The measure passed the Senate, 32-1, and the Assembly by 66-1 with two abstentions. It now heads to Gov. Murphy’s desk.

Lawmakers moved to expand New Jersey’s Smoke-Free Air Act to beaches, forests, and parks at the state, county, and municipal levels, in addition to the current bans in indoor public settings.

Towns and counties would create designated smoking areas that could constitute no more than 15 percent of the beach; parking lots adjacent to beaches or parks would not be subject to the ban. Violators would be fined $250 for an initial offense, with fines rising to $500 and $1,000 for a second and third infraction.

The bill would go into effect 180 days after being signed, in time for next summer.

Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D., Gloucester), one of the sponsors, said, “This is an issue that impacts the environmental quality of the Jersey Shore, the health of beach-goers exposed to second-hand smoke, the quality of life for residents and visitors, and ultimately, the economic well-being of Shore communities. We don’t want our beaches littered with cigarette butts, the air polluted with smoke or the ocean wildlife exposed to threat of discarded cigarettes.”

Bob Smith, a Middlesex County Democrat who is chairman of the Senate Environment Committee, echoed that view. “It’s time to get smoking off the beach,” he said.

Assemblyman Vincent Mazzeo (D., Atlantic), another sponsor, said he expected the governor to sign.

“I’m hopeful because it’s actually good policy for the health and safety of residents of New Jersey,” Mazzeo said after the vote. 

Lawmakers had been trying to ban beach smoking for the last four years, but encountered opposition under the administration of then-Gov. Chris Christie.

In July 2014, a bill that would have banned smoking in state parks and limited smoking on beaches overwhelmingly passed the legislature, but Christie vetoed it. Two years later, the governor issued a conditional veto to a renewed smoking ban, prohibiting the practice at New Jersey’s two state-owned beaches while allowing towns to determine their own restrictions.

One area of contention in the current bill is enforcement, which derailed past efforts. The measure does not specify whether lifeguards, police officers, or others will enforce the ban.

According to Mazzeo, enforcement would be determined by municipalities. He suggested that either lifeguards or beach patrols could enforce the law.

Over the last two decades, almost 20 towns in the state have enacted their own bans on smoking at the beach.

In 2001, Belmar in Monmouth County became the first at the Shore to restrict the use of tobacco near the beach in the summer. The ordinance was strengthened in 2014 and extended to a year-round ban.

Belmar Mayor Brian Magovern said the measure, which bans smoking on the beach and the boardwalk, has led to a cleaner beach and healthier air, and eliminated fears of barefoot children burning their feet on discarded, lit cigarette butts.

“Overall, our ordinance has proven to be very successful,” Magovern said.

In Belmar, the town established two mechanisms — no-smoking signage and a crew of beach police — to enforce its smoking ban, said Magovern.

According to the American Nonsmokers’ Rights Foundation, 19 New Jersey municipalities had banned smoking on beaches as of October 2017.

And on April 26, Asbury Park became one of the latest towns at the Shore to ban beach smoking. Wildwood, North Wildwood, and Point Pleasant Beach also banned smoking on their beaches this summer.

A number of states have recently grappled with similar legislation. In 2017, California Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed a ban that would have prohibited the use of tobacco products at all state beaches and parks due to fears over the coercive power of government.

Pennsylvania has started a pilot program to ban smoking at the state’s swimming beaches, a prohibition that extends to to 39 of the state’s 54 beaches this summer.

Supporters believe that if Murphy signs the measure, it will make the state’s beaches cleaner, safer, and more welcoming and enjoyable.

The bill will “be a good thing for people who go to the state’s beaches,” Magovern said. “It makes the beach cleaner.”