Fight Dirt Tybee displays cigarette butts collected from the beach. Credit: Fight Dirty Tybee

Tybee Island is poised to stub out smoking on its beaches.

Tybee City Council on Thursday passed the first reading of a beach smoking ban that’s been years in the making. If it passes again at its second reading in May, Tybee will become the first Coastal Georgia beach to prohibit smoking.

“It shall be unlawful for any person to smoke, vape or use tobacco or related products on
any beach on Tybee Island,” the proposed ordinance reads in part. “This prohibition on smoking, vaping or using tobacco or related products extends into the ocean and includes all crosswalks to the beach as well as the pier.”

Tybee anti-litter advocate Tim Arnold spoke at the council meeting, urging a complete ban rather than an expansion of the existing two-block no smoking zone.

“I think it’s all or nothing,” he said. “With freedom and individual rights comes responsibility. And I’ve never met a smoker that says, ‘Yep, I’m the one throwing those butts on the beach. So somebody’s doing it. I don’t know who it is, not non smokers, but somebody’s doing it. And they’re doing it in large quantities, not small quantities.”

Arnold leads the “Fight Dirty Tybee” coalition, which arrived at the meeting about a dozen strong in t-shirts with its logo of a boxing-gloved loggerhead. They lined the outdoor path to council chambers with 14 five-gallon buckets full of cigarette butts, about 63,000 of them, all plucked from the beach.

About a dozen members of the anti-litter group, Fight Dirty Tybee, came out to support a smoking ban on the beach. Credit: Mary Landers/The Current

“If you haven’t seen them take a look,” Arnold said. “Hold your nose. That’s a little over 10% of what we picked up in the last couple years. It is just just a massive problem.”

Cigarette butts are the most common item littered on beaches not just on Tybee, but all over, the Ocean Conservancy reports.

Aesthetics are only part of the issue. Cigarette filters are made of cellulose acetate, a plastic.

“I’m not sure if any of you saw recently there was an article about microplastics being found in the human bloodstream,” Tybee resident Elizabeth Reed said. “And that’s what these cigarette butts become, microplastics — very, very small particles of plastic.”

Cigarette butts, which can contain pesticide and other chemical residue, were shown in a 2011 study in the journal Tobacco Control to be lethal to fish in concentrations of one cigarette butt per liter.

The value of smoke-free beaches is clear to Stephen Leatherman, aka “Dr. Beach,” a professor and director of the Laboratory for Coastal Research at Florida International University, who gives them a bonus point in his annual rankings of the world’s best beaches.

Several Charleston-area beaches including Folly Beach, Sullivan’s Island and Isle of Palms have banned beach smoking in recent years. The Florida legislature earlier this year considered a bill that would allow beach-front communities to institute local bans, but it was not brought to a vote.

In an online poll of 782 area residents Tybee conducted during a comment period prior to the council vote, 63% favored the move to smoke-free status on all Tybee beaches.

Council voted 3-2 in favor of the ban Thursday with council member Barry Brown not in attendance. If the council ties, Mayor Shirley Sessions holds the deciding vote. There are no buts or butts about it for her.

“I feel like this is our opportunity to make a difference on Tybee Island, to say we’re going to do the right thing for the right reason at the right time,” she said.

The final vote is scheduled for the May 12 council meeting.