On summer weekends, the Ocean City beach can entertain a veritable sea of humanity as waves of tourists spread out across the sand on blankets and towels. The throngs of beachgoers are squeezed in so tightly, it's easy enough to discern a neighbor's brand of sunscreen by smell alone. Aside from rock concerts and frat parties, rarely are so many so densely packed.
But in the midst of such a swelling crowd, smokers are, at best, an irritation on the order of sand flies and thunderstorms — but represent a far more serious health hazard. They may be outdoors, but for those trapped in the immediate vicinity, their cigarette smoke can be noxious, and the butts left behind give the beach the feel of a giant ashtray.
Worst of all is that secondhand smoke is a leading health threat, hardly the sort of environmental amenity tourists are looking for in a family vacation. Secondhand smoke contains thousands of toxic chemicals, from lead to cyanide, and can cause or contribute to such serious health problems as lung disease, heart ailments and cancer — with children facing the greatest risk.
That's why it's good to hear that Ocean City's elected leaders have at least agreed to look into a ban on smoking on the beach. The issue was raised for the first time at a city council meeting earlier this month by council member Margaret Pilas, owner of a Boardwalk children's clothing store who has a background in health care issues.
Such a discussion is overdue. Two years ago, nearby Bethany Beach, Del., banned smoking on the boardwalk and beach in the summer months, the first such moratorium in the state. The move had no adverse effect on tourism, according to town officials.
Ocean City Mayor Rick Meehan has urged caution on the issue as he and others naturally worry that such a ban will drive away substantial numbers of tourists. The town has never polled visitors to get their views on the issue, and refusing to limit smoking may in fact be just as costly to local businesses. As Ms. Pilas told her colleagues, there may be many who are "turned off" by the presence of secondhand smoke and cigarette litter on the beach.
Certainly, the risk posed by secondhand smoke — even outdoors — is not in doubt. A 2005 University of Maryland study found that even in open areas, people need to be at least 23 feet away to fully escape the effects of smoking. On a crowded beach, such a distance isn't always possible.
Recognizing this risk, many other communities have moved to ban smoking in public parks and other popular outdoor venues in recent years. Last month, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg said he is leaning toward just such a law. Other communities, from San Antonio to Savannah, are considering doing the same.
Promoting good health is an approach that ought to help, not hurt, the tourism trade. Ocean City officials might also investigate what steps the town could take to help visitors avoid over- exposure to the sun and the risk of skin cancer. Perhaps offering more shaded areas around the Boardwalk, promoting the use of sunscreen or running public service announcements about the risks of melanoma on cable television would be worthwhile, too.
Maryland has taken significant steps to reduce cancer incidence and mortality, but as a recent American Cancer Society report points out, the state lags others in some measures, including how much is spent annually on tobacco control programs (currently less than 11 percent of what the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends).
A ban on smoking on the beach would demonstrate that Ocean City is a place that cares about the health and safety of its visitors. That's a nice attribute for a resort that has long claimed to be family friendly and would set an example for the rest of the state.