Smoking on the beach

Smoking is a bad habit, and we have no problem with banning it in the workplace, restaurants and other public buildings. But banning smoking on the beach is going too far.

Come Oct. 1, a four-mile stretch of beach on the Grand Strand will be a smoke-free zone. Surfside Beach, the 5,000-resident town south of Myrtle Beach, has prohibited smoking not only in its businesses and city parks, but also on the beach.

Surfside Beach is not the first to do so. At least 47 U.S. cities have passed beach smoking bans, including several in California, New Jersey and Massachusetts.

Proponents of the beach bans cite several reasons for enacting them. They hope to reduce the risk of fire, litter and danger to children and animals that might eat cigarette butts.

Of those, the litter problem is the most compelling. We doubt many children or animals ingest enough cigarette butts to make that a significant health concern. And we haven't heard of many serious beach fires lately.

Officials with the S.C. office of Ocean and Coastal Resource Management say cigarette butts are the No. 1 pollutant of state beaches. And because the butts are largely plastic, they don't degrade quickly.

Still, people leave all sorts of litter on the beach, much of it non-biodegradable. While we lament that people toss their cigarette butts on the beach, that's a litter problem, not a health problem. And the problem with discarded cigarette butts is hardly exclusive to the beach.

Perhaps, instead of banning smoking altogether, the citizens of Surfside Beach should consider installing containers along the beach exclusively for the disposal of cigarette butts. That might reduce the problem considerably.

Advocates of smoking bans need a solid rationale to back them up if they don't want to come across simply as scolds who want to deprive smokers of their rights. There are good reasons for banning smoking in the workplace or public buildings where non-smokers can be subjected to second-hand smoke. In restaurants, for example, cigarette smoke not only is an annoyance to many patrons but also a serious health threat to waiters and other employees who are forced to breathe it all day.

That's not the case on the beach, which is, of course, out in the open, often with the bonus of a sea breeze. Beach smokers pose virtually no health hazard to others.

Those who support reasonable restrictions on smoking should not over-reach. Smoking still is a legal adult indulgence, and unless it is banned outright, smokers should be permitted to light up outside -- including on the beach -- as long as others are not directly affected.