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No Ifs, Ands or Butts

October 20, 2003

Jack Weiss is right when he says "it shouldn't be considered socially acceptable to go to the beach and puff away ... and then flick your cigarette butt into the sand." Not only is it not acceptable to dump your cigarette butts -- and dirty diapers, empty soda cans and potato chip bags -- on the beach, it's illegal, already.

But the Los Angeles City councilman's solution to the butts-in-the-sand problem makes about as much sense as the head-in-the-sand behavior of continuing to smoke despite all the evidence of tobacco's dangers. Weiss wants the council to ban smoking on local beaches and issue tickets to scofflaws.

Picture this: Los Angeles police officers, under Weiss' proposal, would spend summer days traipsing across the sand, like junior high school principals on bathroom patrol, issuing citations to smokers. So far, Weiss has got Councilwoman Cindy Miscikowski to sign on to this plan, and the full council could vote on the matter in the coming weeks. This is, after all, the same body that just last month earnestly and foolishly debated an ordinance specifying the number of inches between exotic dancers and their customers -- and then passed it.

State and local ordinances ban tossing litter onto public beaches, streets and playgrounds -- even if many boneheads still do just that, flinging plastic-foam coffee cups out the car window as they whiz down the freeway or walking away from half-eaten sandwiches on park picnic tables. Weiss says cigarette butts are a big part of the beach-litter problem, noting that volunteers picked up more than 300,000 butts from California beaches on a single day during last year's Coastal Cleanup.

Tougher enforcement and more public education are certainly needed to cut the mini-landfills of garbage that accumulate on the beach every summer. Weiss says his ordinance would probably affect 10 miles of beachfront, including Venice, Cabrillo, Dockweiler and Will Rogers beaches. The county's Department of Beaches and Harbors picks up the trash there now. Could it do more? Yes, with more trash cans, more public education and more staff.

But with his motion, Weiss intends as much to cut smoking as to cut litter. Breathing secondhand smoke is unhealthy, he argues correctly, but having police officers ticket those who puff away by the shore is a pretty expensive and roundabout way to get them to quit. This proposal makes about as much sense as the ordinance the council passed last year banning smoking in many areas of city parks as a way to control gangs. The council meant well. But its do-gooderism is the worst kind: reactive, shallow, muddled.

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