SEASIDE HEIGHTS, N.J. - You can imbibe until nearly dawn in the boardwalk bars and nightclubs of this Jersey Shore town. Partying is so ubiquitous that the place has been the backdrop for everything from MTV's True Life to the 2006 slacker film Beer League.
But don't try smoking on the beach.
In their continuing quest to clean up Seaside Heights' hedonistic image, borough officials last week approved an ordinance that requires smokers to remain within 20 feet of the boards if they want to light up. The rest of the beach has been designated as smoke-free.
Nonsmokers complained to the town that, even more than blaring radios and tourists feeding seagulls, the thing most likely to ruin their beach day was secondhand smoke polluting the otherwise refreshing sea breeze, Borough Administrator John Camera said yesterday.
The Ocean County resort also has cracked down on noise, illegal parking, and trash disposal, officials said.
While the smoking ban took effect immediately, Camera conceded that it was unlikely police would do more than warn violators as the season winds down. So far, Seaside Heights has installed a line of poles and signage to delineate where the smoking area ends. It also has provided large receptacles for collecting spent cigarette and cigar butts.
"We'll use the remaining weeks of this summer to figure out how we should proceed next year. This year, we're just going to educate the public about the new rule," Camera said.
Next summer, a Municipal Court judge could fine violators if they ventured outside the designated area, Camera said. The precise amount of the fine would be up to the judge; current beach fines range up to $1,250.
While environmentalists have applauded the ban - discarded cigarettes are the pollutant found most along New Jersey's 127-mile coastline, they report - others believe the measure is heavy-handed.
"There are so many other, bigger issues in places like Seaside that politicians and town officials should be concerned about - like drinking on the beach and lewdness," said Audrey Silk, founder of the group Citizens Lobbying Against Smoker Harassment, based in New York. "Smokers are an easy target."
But beachgoers such as Stephanie Stevio, 36, of Toms River, who was sunning herself yesterday on Seaside Heights' shoreline, say they have long been annoyed by sea air sullied by cigarettes.
"It's usually so breezy on the beach that if people around you are smoking, you get smoke blown in your face," Stevio said. "Especially if the beach is really crowded."
Seaside Heights is only the second town on the Shore to ban beach smoking, although other places - including Beach Haven, Ocean City, and Cape May - say they are considering it. Since 2001, smokers in Belmar, Monmouth County, have been prohibited from venturing more than 100 feet from signs indicating the town's limited number of beachfront smoking areas.
Ocean City, whose City Council has for years debated a measure similar to Seaside Heights', banned smoking on the boardwalk in 2002, when it was determined that improperly discarded cigarettes had caused a rash of fires.
Some officials called the ordinance a "public relations nightmare" in a place that already banned the sale and consumption of alcohol (a rule in place since the town's founding as a Methodist summer retreat in the 1880s) and until the 1980s enforced blue laws that forbade the sale of anything but food on Sundays. Smoking on the beach in Ocean City is permitted.
In free-wheeling Seaside Heights, Camera insists, the only complaints he has received have come from nonsmokers who want enforcement to begin sooner and smokers who say their designated area is too small and too far from the water.
"It is certainly saying that Seaside Heights doesn't want my business as a smoker, and the business of the family and friends that go with me," Silk contended. "There's no evidence to support the claim that smoking outdoors promotes a hazard from secondhand smoke. . . . This campaign is more about hate than it is about health."
Tavia Danch, pollution-prevention coordinator of Clean Ocean Action, a New Jersey-based environmental watchdog organization, said she hoped other beach towns would adopt similar measures.
As indoor-smoking bans have forced smokers outside in recent years, Danch said, there has been a marked increase in pollution generated from discarded cigarette butts. In 2008, volunteers in two three-hour beach sweeps conducted by Clean Ocean Action along the Shore collected a total of 41,900 cigarette butts, she said.
"We found cigarette butts to be the number-one discarded material on beaches up and down the coast," Danch said. "A ban on smoking on the beach would very likely reduce that number."