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A New War on Smoking

Scientists and environmentalists note that cigarette butts are polluting coastal waterways and harming fish and wildlife. Will cigarette filters go the way of plastic bags?



On a recent morning in Oakland's Dimond district, ten residents dressed in neon vests gathered in the parking lot of Giant Burger on MacArthur Boulevard for their weekly ritual. As the sun came up over the storefronts, they set to work, armed with trash bags, brooms, and litter pickers — each person on the hunt for illegal dump sites, plastic wrappers, bottle caps, Styrofoam, and cigarette butts. Each year, the group picks up about 12,000 pounds of trash from a six-block area. These volunteers — mostly local residents and shopkeepers — know a lot about litter. And they're incensed about one particularly bothersome type of trash: cigarette butts.

"I hate them!" declared Zandile Christian, an otherwise cheerful woman who leads the Saturday cleanup.

"It's just ridiculous," added David Coleman, another volunteer. "The problem I find with cigarettes is that all parts of the packaging is litter: You take the cellophane off, drop it, and when the pack's empty, you drop that, too."

Stan Dodson, who is the manager of La Farine French Bakery on Fruitvale Avenue and helped found the weekly cleanup, noted that the Dimond district is a transit hub. At least fourteen AC Transit bus lines converge on the neighborhood, and Dodson said the bus stops are "litter magnets." He said the group is doing what it can to manage the trash, but with thousands of commuters traveling through the area each week, the challenge is immense. "Just this morning I was sweeping outside the bakery, and I swept up twenty cigarette butts," he said. "By far the most litter was cigarette butts. People just throw them right in the storm drain like it's their ashtray."

Despite the group's best efforts, cigarette litter keeps showing up on the streets, stuffed in sidewalk cracks or scattered like little bones on the blacktop. The volunteers clean up what they can, but winter rains will likely wash leftover butts and other small pieces of trash into the city's storm drains, which, like most local systems, flow directly into San Francisco Bay.

Although small and often overlooked, cigarette litter is a potent source of pollution in the bay and other coastal waters. Cigarette filters are made of plastic that does not biodegrade, and discarded butts are full of toxins that have the potential to poison water and harm wildlife.

In response to the numerous hazards associated with cigarette filters, the Oakland-based environmental group Save The Bay has launched a new campaign to keep them from polluting local watersheds and coastal waters. Save The Bay, which helped spearhead the successful effort to ban single-use plastic bags in the region, recently backed a strict ban on most outdoor smoking in El Cerrito, and is pushing Berkeley to enforce a similar ordinance already on the books. Save The Bay representatives say the want a "butt-free bay" — and soon.

This burgeoning backlash against cigarette litter also represents a new front in the decades-long war on smoking. Rather than emphasizing the harmful effects of smoking on human health, Save The Bay's campaign and others like it are focusing on the dangers that cigarettes pose to water quality and fragile marine ecosystems. And it's not just a local issue. Some scientists and state lawmakers have called for a ban on filtered cigarettes across California, citing the environmental damage they cause. These advocates, scientists, and politicians hope that cigarette filters will ultimately meet the same fate as the single-use plastic bag.

But they face an uphill fight. The plastic bag industry spent millions on its failed effort to defeat a state ban, and Big Tobacco can be expected to unleash an even larger torrent of money to combat those who would limit its profits.

In California, the war on smoking has enjoyed considerable success. Perhaps the most important milestone was the passage in 1988 of Proposition 99, which added a 25- cent tax to cigarette packs and dedicated one fifth of the revenue to the state's tobacco control program. Since then, according to the California Department of Public Health, the number of cigarettes smoked by Californians has dropped by 62 percent. When the program began, one in five adults in the state smoked. Today, one in eight do.

Bans on smoking in bars, restaurants, and public places have also contributed to the decline in cigarette consumption. Cigarette smoking also has lost much of its social prestige over the years.

Nonetheless, California still has more than 3.5 million smokers, and the impact on public health remains considerable.

However, public awareness about the environmental problems that cigarettes cause is beginning to grow.

Cigarette butts are the most ubiquitous type of litter in the Bay Area, according to scientists, advocates, and government officials. Save The Bay estimates that 3 billion cigarettes are littered each year in the region. Thomas Novotny, a professor at San Diego State University and an expert on tobacco pollution, said the Bay Area's 7 million-plus residents smoke roughly 4.76 billion cigarettes a year, and studies suggest that between one-third and two-thirds of all cigarettes end up as litter.

No one knows exactly how many cigarette filters make it into the water, but it's a lot. "I would say hundreds of thousands — no millions — of cigarette butts are flowing down the storm drain systems into creeks and the bay each year," said Dale Bowyer of the San Francisco Bay Regional Water Quality Board.

Eben Schwartz, the California Coastal Commission's marine debris program manager, said cigarette butts make up at least 40 percent of the litter picked up each year during the state's coastal cleanup day. "There is a lot of misinformation about cigarette butts out there — a belief that they are small and harmless," Schwartz said. "But they are an enormous problem in this state, in this country, and around the world."