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Professor helps pass legislation to get butts off Florida beaches
A news conference at Lido Key Beach, where Dr. Beach (red shirt) created awareness about the start of the new law allowing local governments to ban smoking at beaches.

Professor helps pass legislation to get butts off Florida beaches

October 4, 2022 at 3:48pm

Dr. Beach has always had the prescription for a perfect beach day — zero butts on the beach. Cigarette butts, of course.

Now, this will be a reality for more Florida beachgoers, in part because of his efforts to pass new legislation that will protect Florida beaches and maintain their top spots as major tourist destinations.

Stephen Leatherman, an FIU coastal scientist and professor in the Department of Earth and Environment — best known as Dr. Beach — has spent four decades researching and protecting the health of beaches. This summer, he amped up those efforts by traveling across the state, giving presentations and meeting with different government officials on the importance of passing House Bill 105 — to amend the Florida Clean Indoor Air Act to allow cities and counties to restrict smoking at public beaches. Florida Governor Ron DeSantis recently signed the bill into law.

“I have been saying it for years that we need to get butts off our beaches,” Leatherman said. “I am so pleased that this new law as proposed and promoted by State Senator Joe Gruters was signed by Governor DeSantis. Hopefully, beach communities statewide will pass regulations to make their beaches cleaner and healthier.”

Those regulations are happening — and close to home. The Miami Beach City Commission recently voted to ban cigarette smoking and other tobacco products on public beaches and parks — a move Leatherman says is a great sign and “big step forward.”

One of the largest sources of pollution on beaches, cigarettes spoil a relaxing day by the sea. They are also harmful to coastal environments. The tightly packed plastic fibers of cigarettes eventually erode into smaller and smaller pieces and, over time, end up in the mouths of fish, sea turtles, birds and other marine life. Chemicals and toxic heavy metals found in those butts also degrade very slowly.

Most cities do their best to get rid of the litter. But cigarettes can evade even the beach sweepers. Worse, clean-up can get expensive — and taxpayers tend to foot the bill. Eliminating smoking on beaches saves money, while also protecting the environment.

Leatherman has always been passionate about prohibiting smoking on beaches for these reasons. While his much-anticipated, infamous Top 10 Best Beaches list has completely transformed tourism and determined countless family vacations for more than 30 years, he’s most proud of the fact it has become a way for him to advocate for improving the environmental health of the country's beaches.

Clean water and sand are the most important factors when he’s rating beaches on a five-point scale. Since that’s what beachgoers and tourists want. Only the cleanest beaches get top billing. And Leatherman is a tough grader. But he does give extra credit — only to beaches that don’t allow smoking. This has prompted different cities and communities to get serious about taking good care of their beaches to even be considered in the running.

“I am pleased to hear [he] is giving extra credit to beaches that prohibit smoking when ranking your “Top 10 Beaches.” This list brings in millions of visitors, dollars and media impressions each year,” said State Senator Joe Gruters in a letter. “It is rare for an academic to have such a public persona that can provide institutional knowledge [of Florida] and education related to this important legislation.”

Now that the legislation has been passed, Leatherman is gearing up to tackle the next thing — promoting a no-smoking ban for all the Florida State Parks.