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North Bay lawmaker proposes ban on smoking at California beaches and parks

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Gary Pickrell Jr. leaned back on his car at a lot overlooking North Salmon Creek beach Tuesday and took a long drag of his e-cigarette.

Sweet-smelling smoke wafted into the air before dissipating in the breeze. Morning fog had been pushed off the Sonoma Coast, bathing the beach north of Bodega Bay in sunshine.

For Pickrell of Petaluma, the vast expanse of a state beach is an ideal place to light up.

“How’s it going to hurt someone out here?” Pickrell said, referencing the health risks associated with secondhand smoke.

But a North Bay lawmaker disagrees and is seeking a ban on smoking at California’s beaches and state parks. The ban would apply to cigarettes, cigars and e-cigarettes, as well smoking “any other lighted or heated tobacco or plant product intended for inhalation.”

In other words, no sparking a joint while dipping your toes in the sand.

Assemblyman Marc Levine, D-Greenbrae, argues his legislation is necessary to address health risks of secondhand smoke, as well as the unsightly and environmentally unfriendly practice of discarding cigarette butts in public outdoor spaces.

“Smokers have no rights to defile our state beaches and parks,” Levine said Tuesday.

The American Lung Association supports the bill on the grounds that parks and beaches are frequented by families and “nobody should be exposed to unwanted smoke,” according to spokeswoman Lindsey Freitas.

Tobacco smoking causes an estimated 443,000 deaths per year, including 73,000 nonsmokers. There is no risk-free level of exposure to secondhand smoke, according to the U.S. Surgeon General, and the California Air Resources Board has categorized secondhand smoke as a toxic air contaminant.

Freitas also noted that 365 California communities have adopted bans on smoking in indoor and outdoor spaces similar to what Levine is proposing in state parks.

“It is time for California to follow suit,” she said.

But for smokers like Pickrell, the proposed bill is more evidence of a nanny-state run amok.

“What’s the next thing they’re going to take from us?” he said.

At Goat Rock beach near Jenner, surfer Andrew Bedford of Sebastopol lamented picking up cigarette butts “all day long” in his effort to keep the area clean. But he worries a ban on smoking may be “a little much.” Bedford said he’d prefer a crackdown on littering in general.

Cigarette litter is the most commonly retrieved waste item during coastal cleanup days, accounting for more than 2 million pieces of litter in 2015, according to the Ocean Conservancy.

The toxic waste has been found in the stomachs of fish, birds, whales and other marine animals that mistake them for food. Cigarette filters also contain cellulose acetate, a type of plastic that breaks down slowly and never fully decomposes. In inland park areas, discarded cigarettes have been blamed for starting fires.

Littering already is a crime, and California State Parks alreadyalready prohibits smoking in buildings, on trails and during high fire season. Levine’s bill, AB 275, would take things further by banning smoking throughout the state park system, which spans 1.3 million acres and includes 300  miles of state beaches and 280 state park units.

Violators of the ban could be slapped with $250 fines.

At Goat Rock on Tuesday, Bob Wolf of South Lake Tahoe said he would welcome the ban.

“The last thing you want when you step out here is to catch the whiff of that (smoke),” Wolf said.

Levine’s bill is at least the fourth attempt since 2004 to ban smoking at state beaches and parks. Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed a similar bill in 2016 on the grounds that it was too punitive and overly broad.

Cost is another concern. The state Legislative Analyst’s Office estimates it will cost $840,000 to $1.1 million to purchase and install no-smoking signs at the new locations.

Levine’s bill currently is on hold in the Assembly’s Appropriations Committee, with its fate unknown until late May, when such bills are advanced or die. Pickrell, who laughed Tuesday when he said he came to the beach “for a breath of fresh air and a smoke,” hopes it’s the latter.

You can reach Staff Writer Derek Moore at 707-521-5336 or derek.moore@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @deadlinederek.