Up in smoke, ban fails
March 14, 2012
by Marimar McNaughton
For more than two hours, Wrightsville Beach elected officials heard public input regarding a proposed smoking ban and then deliberated the outcome on Thursday, March 8. The arguments for and against the ban were not substantially different than those heard by the same governing body two years ago.
Underlying commentary on both sides was the issue of enforcement. With unenforced littering and alcohol consumption ordinances already on the books, opponents of the smoking ban questioned the validity of putting yet one more unenforceable law in motion. But proponents of the ban, a number of whom actively participate in public and private beach sweeps cited environmental contamination and public health concerns caused by improper disposal of cigarette butts and secondhand smoke.
Smoking ban supporters outnumbered their opponents 10 to one by a show of hands, and Wrightsville Beach resident smoking ban supporters outnumbered resident opponents five to one by a second show of hands.
Regardless of the public sentiment, the decision came down to the opinions of Mayor David Cignotti, Mayor Pro Tem Susan Collins and Aldermen Dr. Bill Sisson, Elizabeth King and swing voter Darryl Mills.
Sisson stated that he did not believe the issue was one of enforcement, citing such examples as speed limit and pet waste enforcement.
“We’re not going to lose a thing by trying. But if we don’t try we will never know. And not trying is worse to me than anything else,” Sisson said.
Collins appeared to read from a prepared statement. She said a new law based on peer-pressuring teenagers and senior citizens was unfair.
Recounting the town’s efforts to educate residents and visitors about the town’s efforts to encourage smokers to clean up after themselves or respect the nonsmoking public, Cignotti admitted that nothing had changed and that education efforts have not been effective. He was in favor of the smoking ban in 2010 and was still clearly in favor of the ban.
“I tip my hat to Danielle Richardet,” Cignotti said, referring to the young mother and her family who were the subject of the Britta-sponsored Sundance Film Festival documentary, “It Starts With Me.”
“She did not throw down 40,000 cigarette butts; she picked them up,” Cignotti said.
“My challenge is to the board members,” Cignotti continued. “When we are elected we have to look at what our constituents want. I encourage my board members to pass this tonight. I agree with Mr. Sisson that we may have to tweak it as we go along.”
Both sides, Elizabeth King said, presented compelling arguments, yet she sided with Collins.
“Passage will do two things: present added costs, and use the present police force and jeopardize our public safety,” King said.
The final vote rested solely in the lap of Mills, who said he was not a smoker and had never been a smoker.
“There are questions on both sides, contingencies … health issues, freedom of choice issues,” Mills said.
He recited the last line of the pledge of allegiance: “with freedom and justice for all,” reminding the audience that Wrightsville was, by charter, a public beach.
“We have to consider everybody: smokers and nonsmokers,” Mills said.
Before he called the vote, the mayor called on Wrightsville Beach Police Chief Dan House to answer questions. Dr. Sisson asked if the ordinance was passed whether it would put a burden on the town’s police force.
“I don’t see a huge upset … whatever decision you want to make we’ll enforce it,” House said.
Sisson asked the chief to confirm that to enforce the town’s current litter ordinance, a public safety officer must witness the actual act of littering, in process.
Cignotti made the motion to pass the proposed smoking ban, seconded by Sisson. The vote failed 3-2.