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Friday, March 19, 2010

Attempt Stalls to Ban Smoking at Calif State Parks

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) - An attempt by the California Legislature to impose what is believed to be the nation's most far-reaching smoking ban in state parks stalled Thursday over objections it would inappropriately punish smokers.

The bill in the 80-member Assembly fell five votes short of the simple majority needed to approve the ban, in part because several lawmakers who were expected to vote for it were absent.

"We'll bring it back and go again," said Assemblywoman Julia Brownley, D-Santa Monica. "I think we'll have the votes."

Another vote could be held as early as Monday.

The legislation would ban smoking at state beaches and all other state parks as a way to get unsightly cigarette butts off the beach, eliminate second-hand smoke and reduce the threat of wildfires.

Under a legislative compromise, campsites and parking areas will be exempted from the ban.

Maine banned smoking at its state beaches last year, but groups that track such legislation say no state prohibits lighting up throughout its entire park system, as the California bill proposes.

"It is very clear that the garbage that is created as a result of smoking on beaches - butts and wrappers - are polluting our water," Democratic state Sen. Jenny Oropeza of Long Beach, the bill's author, said in an interview. "In terms of the state park system, we have a major fire hazard when cigarettes are smoked in parks."

Her bill would affect some of the state's most iconic geography, from the otherworldly desert landscape of Anza Borrego to famous Southern California surfing spots to Northern California redwood groves. The legislation previously passed the Senate.

At Pacifica State Beach near San Francisco, surfer Drew Cunningham, 24, stood next to his board getting ready to hit the waves. He said he fully supports a law that would ban smoking on any beaches.

"The butts tend to end up in the water or the beach, and animals can get ahold of them. It's not good," he said. "I have an 18-month old daughter, and I like to bring her to the beach. I don't want people smoking there."

The legislation is opposed by the tobacco industry, which disputes that second-hand smoke is harmful.

Assembly Republicans complained such a ban would be hard to enforce and unfair to smokers who do not litter.

"Prohibiting something is not the answer," said Anthony Adams, R-Hesperia. "That assumes that everybody who smokes does something intrinsically criminal. Punish those for the crime of littering."

If the legislation eventually is signed into law, California would be the first state to ban smoking throughout its entire park system, according to Americans for Nonsmokers' Rights, a Berkeley-based nonprofit that tracks such bans.

Similar smoking bans are being considered in Hawaii, New Hampshire, New Jersey and New York, according to the American Cancer Society.

The move would not be surprising in a state with a long history of cracking down on smoking as a way to eliminate exposure to second-hand smoke. A California law that took effect in 2008 slaps motorists with a $100 fine if they are smoking in a car that contains a minor under the age of 18.

California previously banned smoking in enclosed workplaces such as bars and restaurants, and within 25 feet of a playground. Part of this ongoing effort is to curb the rising price tag of California health insurance quotes, providers being who nominally picks up the tab for a large portion of long-term smoking costs.

Oweni Morring of Ankeny, Iowa, who brought her kids to Pacifica State Beach to play in the surf on Thursday, said smokers have earned a reputation for flicking their cigarettes on the ground.

"I think you shouldn't be allowed to smoke anywhere. Smokers have no manners. If they picked up after themselves it wouldn't be quite as obnoxious as it is," Morring said. "Birds think it's food and fish get contaminated. What's left is the butt, and that's the most toxic part of all."

Nationwide, nearly 100 cities prohibit smoking at beaches, and more than 400 local governments ban smoking at municipal parks.

"Many of these laws often start at the local level first," said Cynthia Hallett, executive director of Americans for Nonsmokers' Rights.

Under Oropeza's bill, any state park that does not have the money to buy no-smoking signs alerting visitors to the rules would be exempt. It's not clear how many of California's 279 of state parks would be unable to erect such signs.

Campsites also would be excluded from the ban to accommodate state park officials, who said prohibiting smoking at campsites would be difficult to enforce.

Parking lots at both beaches and parks also would be exempt. In all other areas of a state park, such as hiking trails or beaches, smoking would be an infraction punishable with a $100 fine.

The proposal continues to face opposition from the tobacco industry. Commonwealth Brands, the fourth largest tobacco manufacturer in the U.S., said prohibitions like the one being proposed in California infringe on smokers' rights.

When asked for a comment about the bill, the company provided a letter it wrote to Oropeza addressing the bill that stalled in the Assembly last year.

"We recognize that some nonsmokers may find tobacco smoke unpleasant or annoying, but we do not believe that the scientific evidence, often cited in isolation by health advocates, when taken as a whole is sufficient to establish that other people's tobacco smoke is a cause of any disease," said Anthony Hemsley, a company spokesman.

The letter did not address the litter or fire hazard concerns raised by the bill's advocates.