It was one of those perfect winter days in Miami Beach: the sun shining and no clouds to dull the rays, a slight breeze off the Atlantic keeping things cool, and the air temperature a delightful 82 degrees. (At home in Washington, it was freezing, literally.) I plopped down on a rented chair beneath a large umbrella, turned off my two cellphones and felt my muscles unclench as I settled in to read a novel and watch the twinkling waves meander to shore.
It was the first time I had relaxed in I couldn’t remember when. My husband, two daughters and a family friend were with me and thoroughly enjoying themselves as well.
I was quietly ecstatic, having negotiated the crowds at the airport and carefully maneuvered down the crowded roads and bridges leading to Miami Beach, a winter haven for tourists from around the world who come to soak up the sun and pack the city’s restaurants, bars and beaches. I was a tourist of a sort — a native Miamian who’d come back to visit friends and enjoy the restorative power of the sand, sea and open sky.
My quiet reverie didn’t last long. In fact, it didn’t last more than five minutes.
The intrusive element was not the loud, annoying music coming from other peoples’ radios.
It wasn’t the never-ending parade of people walking within inches of my chair looking for an open spot to plant themselves (wearing bathing suits they shouldn’t have been wearing and speaking way too loudly about last night’s hookup with a cute stranger).
It wasn’t the people with metal-detecting machines brushing past my chair as they searched for a fortune in the sand.
Nor was it the fact that I’d forgotten to bring water and thus would have to purchase it for an exorbitant price. Nor the thought of the inevitable traffic jam that we’d encounter later, as we tried to get off the beach.
It was the smoke.
No, nobody was having a barbecue. But people were smoking. All kinds of things, legal and not-so.
This was not good. At least not for me. I’m allergic to smoke. I have a thing about being subjected to the dangerous secondhand stuff. And I can’t stand seeing the sand pockmarked with cigarette butts (many millions of which are dropped on U.S. beaches each year and have to be removed by public workers).
First the breeze carried to my nostrils the smell of cigarettes, which gives me an instant headache. I spotted two apparently European men in impossibly small Speedos lying on a blanket, puffing away. I jumped up, walked over and politely requested them to put out the cigarettes. They politely did.
My daughters were mildly horrified. At me, not the smokers.
Not too much later, cigar smoke found its way to my chair. My headache got worse. Ugh. I looked around and saw two older men sitting very close to me and puffing away on thin cigars. I popped up and asked them, again politely, to stop it. They did, with no problem.
My daughters were more horrified. My husband mentioned that I couldn’t stop every single person from smoking on the beach. “Watch me,” I retorted.
About 15 minutes later, I smelled the acrid odor of pot, which was admittedly less obnoxious, from a purely olfactory point of view, than the cigarette and cigar smoke, but still headache-inducing. I looked around and spotted the offenders, a group of about 10 very tanned young men and women camped out on a huge beach blanket a few hundred feet away.
A man who works at the beach renting chairs and umbrellas, who’d watched me approach the other smokers, walked over and said, “You should tell the lifeguard. They aren’t allowed to smoke on the beach.” Of course they aren’t; pot is illegal in Florida.
At this point, I began to wonder whether there’s any smoking permitted on the beach. So I checked the city regulations and learned that it is — but not because Miami Beach officials think that it’s a good idea. In fact, it’s out of their hands.
In 2003 the state legislature passed the Florida Clean Indoor Air Act, which prohibits smoking in many, although not all, indoor public places — but not outdoors. The law also prevents all local municipalities in the state from making their own rules about where people can smoke. Why?
Back in the 1980s, according to the nonprofit organization Americans for Nonsmokers’ Rights, the tobacco industry pushed state governments to strip local authorities of the right to regulate smoking — and then lobbied those state authorities to do as little regulating as possible. Florida was the No. 1 test case, and in 1985 the state legislature became the first to tell local governments that they couldn’t regulate smoking within their own borders.
If you walk into a smoky Miami Beach bar, you’ll realize that the law doesn’t apply there. Nor does it apply to restaurant and bar patios, music venues, outdoor workplaces, beaches, parks, recreation areas and health care campuses. There are some exceptions, including: You can’t smoke if you’re younger than 18 and if you’re within 1,000 feet of the property of a public K-12 school between 6 a.m. and midnight. This applies across the state, explaining why even though a campuswide smoking ban was declared at Florida State University in Tallahassee, there are no penalties for violating it.
That’s why people are allowed to smoke on the beach whenever they want. They aren’t, of course, supposed to smoke pot, but that doesn’t stop anybody unless someone asks them to. Like me that day. I walked over to the folks getting high and suggested somewhat less than gently that it was time to put down their joints. They told me they would. They didn’t, but they changed position so that the smoke would fly off in a different direction.
According to newspaper reports, the legislature might reverse course this year and allow local officials to ban smoking in public areas, including beaches. If that happens, expect to see outdoor smoking bans in parks and on beaches in many places across the state, including Miami Beach, where officials have over time expressed support for such a ban.
Smokers and the people who make money from tobacco may not like it, but a beach smoking ban can’t come fast enough for me. Of course, as I imagine myself completely relaxing, smoke-free on the beach in the sunshine, this thought intrudes: Since rules aren’t exactly a big thing on Miami Beach, there will no doubt be people who ignore the smoking ban.
And I, the annoying smoke police, will keep after them!
Strauss is a Washington Post education reporter.