Ocean City: The Atlantic's smoking section?

Monday night, the Ocean City Town Council voted to ban smoking in certain municipal playgrounds as well as the town's skate park and tennis center. It was considered a bold move, at least for Ocean City, which remains light years behind neighboring Atlantic Ocean resorts when it comes to family-friendly public health policies.

In nearby Bethany Beach, Del., on the other hand, town officials have gotten a bit bolder. Three days earlier, the Bethany Beach Town Council voted 4-3 to extend the resort's seasonal ban on smoking at the boardwalk to a year-round prohibition.

That's right. Even in mid-January when the winds are whipping over the dunes and a person could fire a harpoon down the Bethany boardwalk without fear of hitting a fellow visitor, it will still be illegal to light up a cigarette.

Now that's a model smoking ban. As for banning smoking in public parks (and not just playgrounds), that's old hat in Bethany Beach. Town officials approved that ordinance several years ago — back when they first started regulating smoking on the boardwalk and beach.

The point is that smoking regulations are not the drag on the tourism economy that some in Ocean City are convinced they would be. Bethany Beach may not be as large as Ocean City, but it has prospered as much or more than its southern neighbor, and officials there say complaints from smokers have been few and far between.

Ocean City town officials raised the possibility of a ban on smoking on its beaches and boardwalk last fall, but the idea was quickly nixed after numerous complaints by local residents and concerns over the potential impact on business. Instead, Ocean City plans to offer designated smoking areas on the beach this season, but their use would be strictly voluntary.

Yet the harmfulness of secondhand smoke is not in any serious dispute. Many years of scientific studies, including a report issued last year by the U.S. Surgeon General, have well established the link between secondhand smoke and respiratory and coronary disease. And even outdoors, breathing near a smoker can be unhealthy.

According to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 20 percent of Americans smoke. That means 80 percent of us don't smoke — and probably don't want to suffer the consequences of vacationing next to someone who does.

Certainly, Maryland's three-year-old statewide restrictions on smoking in restaurants haven't caused serious damage to the hospitality industry. Smoking bans are not just a sop to fussy non-smokers, they save thousands of lives each year.

But if evidence of the adverse health effects, the success of neighboring Bethany Beach at banning smoking, and the fact that most visitors prefer their beach smoke-free is still not enough, let the town put the matter to a vote. That's how Ocean City recently decided to rebuild the boardwalk with an all-wood façade — only after polls showed residents and visitors overwhelming preferred all-wood over one with an exposed concrete lane.

And like the polls on the boardwalk, the vote should be open not just to Ocean City residents but to those who vacation there, too. After all, pleasing vacationers is the key. Before Ocean City continues down the path toward becoming known as a smoker-friendly resort, the council ought to make certain that's what the customers want.

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