The little Southern California town of Solana Beach doesn't have a big reputation. But that may be changing. That's because this sleepy town of 12,000 has just become the first city in the continental United States to ban smoking on its beaches. City officials say the impetus for the new law didn't come from politicians or professional health advocates. It came from high school students.
It's a typical sunny afternoon on the shores of Solana Beach. Wet-suit clad surfers are catching a few waves. Some beachcombers are walking on the sand. And a few people are just enjoying the view of the Pacific. It's a lovely setting. But as you look down at your feet, you see cigarette butts. Lots of them.
Sixteen-year-old Elaine Dang noticed the same thing. She's especially aware of cigarettes, since both of her grandfathers died of smoking-related lung cancer. She's a member of a group called the Youth Tobacco Prevention Corps. Last summer, she and other corps members organized a clean-up at a beach in neighboring Encinitas.
"We had trash can picker-uppers, those metal things, and we just went around, picked up all the cigarette butts we could find, just on the surface of the beach, and there's like tons underneath," she said. "Afterwards we counted it out. And we collected 6,347 butts and that was just within an hour or so."
So Elaine and her friends had a brainstorm. They decided to pitch the idea of a beach smoking ban to the cities of Encinitas and Del Mar. The city councils of these larger beach communities listened to the students' proposal. But that was about it.
"And they all sort of just let it go, they didn't take it seriously," said Elaine Dang. "And then we were lucky enough to put it on the agenda of the city of Solana Beach, and they passed it."
Solana Beach mayor Tom Golich says Elaine and her friends came to the right place. His town was one of the first in California to ban smoking in restaurants, way back in 1992.
"They came to us about a month and a half, two months ago and asked us to do a smoking ban for the month of September," he said. "And we went ahead and did a proclamation, and they said, 'Oh by the way, why don't you also ban smoking as far as the beach goes?' And we thought about it. And we just had had a beach clean up here about a month ago. The number one item we found on the beach was cigarette butts."
Mayor Golich says that got his attention. And it dawned on him that a permanent smoking ban would send a powerful message to kids.
"I think most of the rest of the Council members felt the same way, that it was something that we could do, to try and stop children and youth from smoking," said Mayor Golich.
The Council approved the ban unanimously. The law went into effect last Friday.
So now in Solana Beach, it's against the law to smoke anywhere on the city's 2.5-kilometer beach. You can't light up in the beach parking lot, either.
"I don't care if people smoke on the beach," said surfer Joel Patterson.
Joel Patterson says the law is pointless.
"It's never once affected me, I've surfed my entire life, and I've never said, 'Oh my God, too much smoking at the beach,'" he said.
City officials concede that enforcement of the new law will be light. Signs have been posted announcing the smoking ban, and violators could be subject to a fine. But that's about it.
Nevertheless, members of the Youth Tobacco Prevention Corps are savoring their victory in Solana Beach. Eighteen-year-old Diana Lavery says she's proud of what they accomplished.
"We made policy change, and we're only kids in high school," she said.
And their idea has made waves further up the California coast. A city councilman in Los Angeles has introduced a measure to prohibit smoking along their shores. That ordinance could be voted on before the end of the year.