Polls show a majority of Americans support bans on smoking in public places. That wasn't true a decade ago, but the numbers are so high now — between 55 and 59 percent in recent years, according to Gallup — that a growing number of cities, towns and counties now restrict smoking in parks and other outdoor areas.
Last week, Rehoboth Beach joined the trend. Its commissioners voted to ban smoking not only on most of its beach but all along the town's boardwalk and bandstand. The ban, which takes effect on May 15, passed without objection.
That doesn't exactly make Rehoboth a rarity in the Mid-Atlantic coastal community. Within Delaware, Bethany Beach, Fenwick Island, Dewey Beach and the beachfront Delaware State Parks already ban smoking. Local residents were clearly ready for the change, hundreds having signed a petition requesting that Rehoboth Beach adopt the smoking ban.
The question is no longer whether tourist attractions are in danger of losing business if they ban smoking but whether they are in danger of losing attendance if they don't. Within the hotel industry, the trend these days is to ban smoking altogether. That's a move supported by a recent study that shows partial bans (allowing smoking in some rooms but not in others) results in residual tobacco pollutants in what are supposed to be smoke-free rooms.
Yet Ocean City remains badly behind the times. The town council has repeatedly considered similar far-reaching outdoor smoking bans in recent years but failed to adopt them. Ocean City does ban smoking in parks but asks visitors only to be courteous about smoking on the beach. The town has tougher rules about skim boards (which are banned between the hours of 10 a.m. and 5:30 p.m.) than it does on cigars or cigarettes.
That's unfortunate because it's contributed to an impression that Ocean City is not the family-friendly resort it claims to be but one that caters to smokers. At least its policies now lie in stark contrast to those in neighboring Delaware where concerns over secondhand smoke, cigarette butts on the beach and the example public smoking offers impressionable young children are clearly taken more seriously than in Maryland.
Make no mistake, smoking remains one of the nation's and the world's top human health threats. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, exposure to secondhand smoke contributes to thousands of cancer deaths in the U.S. each year and significantly raises the risk of cardiovascular disease and many other health concerns, particularly for children. And while exposure outdoors is likely less of a problem than indoors, the example set to youngsters remains the same: One of acceptance of smoking in high-profile public places.
By accommodating smokers, Ocean City is also contributing to their demise. The more society demonstrates its disdain for smoking, the more likely it is that smokers will cut back or quit — or more important, that young people won't pick up the deadly habit at all.
One would think that the mere aesthetics of cigarette butts scattered across the beach — often so common that they can make certain stretches seem like one big ashtray — would lead town officials to ban smoking. It's one thing to dig into the sand and find colorful seashells and quite another to unearth a collection of nicotine-stained filters waiting to roll into the Atlantic Ocean.
Such optics are important in the competitive world of tourism. When hypodermic syringes were found on New Jersey beaches in the late 1980s (the result of medical waste dumping in the New York area), the state's tourism industry was devastated. People like to think of beaches as pristine and natural, not befouled with butts or rusty needles. Perhaps Ocean City wants to be known as the nation's summer smoking capital, but we doubt it.
Of course, Ocean City is not alone. Other communities in Maryland have been slow to ban smoking in public areas, too. The Baltimore County Council voted to ban smoking in playgrounds, tot lots, dog parks and athletic fields just last month (three years after Ocean City passed a similar ordinance). But Baltimore County doesn't have nearly as much riding on its image as Ocean City with its multi-billion-dollar tourism industry.
If a smoking ban is right for the beaches of Bethany, Dewey and Rehoboth, it ought to be the correct call for Ocean City, too. The tide on smoking has turned, and it's time Ocean City recognized that reality.
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