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Chicago beaches still cluttered with cigarette butts despite smoking ban

by Annie Slezickey
July 8, 2008 – On North Avenue Beach, Travis Mont Blanc tucked a volleyball under his arm and cupped his hands in an effort to block the Lake Michigan wind as he lit a Marlboro Light.

No alarms sounded as the 25-year-old Lakeview resident inhaled his cigarette on the beach. Without knowing it, Mont Blanc was risking up to a $500 fine had the Chicago Police witnessed his violation of a recent smoking ban on all 25 of the city’s public beaches.

“This is the first summer that the ban is taking place, so it’s hard to say if it’s appropriately enforced or not,” said Marta Juaniza, spokeswoman for the Chicago Park District.

The Chicago Park District proposed the ban last October to prohibit smoking on all Chicago public beaches and parks, Juaniza said. The Chicago Park District views smoking on public beaches as a health issue as well as an environmental concern.

For more than 15 years, cigarette butts have been the most common form of litter found on Great Lakes beaches, said Stephanie Smith of the environmental organization Alliance for the Great Lakes., which regularly organizes clean-ups of the beaches.

During one three-hour clean-up in 2006, volunteers removed about 34,740 cigarette butts from Chicago beaches, according to statistics kept by the Alliance for the Great Lakes.

The Chicago Police Department is responsible for enforcing the ban by issuing warnings and citations to those who violate it, Juaniza said.

Officer John Henry of the news affairs office for the Chicago Police Department said because this is the first summer the ban is in place, officers are likely to issue warnings to those caught smoking on the beaches rather than immediately issue fines.

Despite repeated requests, the Chicago Police Department could not say how many – if any all – citations have been issued since the park board approved the ban nine months ago.

Friends of the Park support the ban, said group president Erma Tranter, but she also said she recognizes that enforcement may be difficult.

Initial regulation of most environmental ordinances may be light because they’re not considered an immediate priority when compared with other crimes, Tranter said.

Larry Merrit of Chicago’s Department of Environment said not enough people know about the ban.

“Officers are not going to be out monitoring the beaches at all times,” Merrit said.

Smokers and beach goers, like Mont Blanc, are unaware of the ban as well. Mont Blanc said if signs were visible informing the public that smoking is not permitted, he would resist lighting up on the sand.

Signs should be posted at all public beaches, Juaniza said. The Chicago Park District planned to display signs prohibiting smoking at all public beaches by the start of the 2008 beach season, which was May 23, Juaniza said.

But more than one month into the beach season, a reporter found no such signs posted on the North Avenue and Oak Street beaches.

“People treat beaches like ashtrays,” Tranter said. “The public should enjoy Chicago public beaches and keep them beautiful.”

Tranter said Friends of the Park, which has cleaned up litter on the lakefront for decades, hopes the smoking ban will eventually eliminate thousands of the cigarette butts found mixed in with the sand, polluting Lake Michigan.

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