California Law Would Ban Butts -- From Cigarettes, That Is

The most commonly collected piece of trash on California's beaches, and everywhere else | Photo: Danny Guy/Flickr/Creative Commons License

Citing the immense damage to wildlife and public health caused by discarded cigarette filters, a California legislator is seeking to ban sales of filter-tipped cigarettes in the state. Assembly Bill 1504, introduced this week by Monterey-area Assemblymember Mark Stone, would make it illegal to sell or give away filtered cigarettes in California, with a relatively stiff fine attached for each violation.

"Cigarette filters leach dangerous chemicals into the environment, kill animals that eat them, and cause communities to spend millions of taxpayer dollars for clean-up," Stone said in a press release. "California has many laws in place to curtail cigarette litter, but people continue to illegally discard tons of cigarette butts each year. The current laws aren't sufficient to address this major problem."

Cigarette butts are one of the most-discarded pieces of litter in the state, and existing litter laws don't seem to have done much to stem the flow of the things from smokers' fingers to the roadside. Worldwide, it's estimated that 845,000 tons of cigarette butts are improperly discarded each year, with something like three billion tossed aside just in the San Francisco Bay Area each year. And as most such filters aren't rapidly biodegradable, the butts pose a long-term threat to wild animals and small children who ingest them.

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The bill would make it illegal to sell, give away, or order any cigarettes with "single-use" filters in the state, with fines of $500 for each violation. (A single violation is defined as up to 20 cigarettes, so that selling a pack or giving a stranger a single cigarette would both merit $500 fines.) If passed, though unlikely, the law would force smokers to use non-filtered cigarettes or carry around and use a reusable filter.

Most commonly available cigarette filters are mainly made of fibers of the plastic cellulose acetate, which can take more than a decade to fall apart on exposure to the elements. Though cellulose acetate is a relatively benign material, smokers coat the filters' fibers with toxic tar and nicotine compounds by the act of smoking. Nicotine in discarded filters is known to pose a serious risk to small children. More than 13,000 calls to poison control centers from 2006 through 2008 involved kids eating cigarette butts, and other studies show that it's kids a year old or less that are at the most risk.

Even without the risk of toxicity from nicotine, the non-biodegradable filter components can accumulate in the stomachs of animals that ingest them, with malnutrition and starvation often resulting.

Though one might reasonably ask whether banning filtered cigarettes poses a risk to smokers, the consensus among public health scientists is that filters don't appreciably reduce the amount of tar, nicotine, or particulate matter that smokers inhale. American tobacco companies have been forbidden to suggest that filters reduce the risk of smoking since 2006.

But the filters persist on cigarettes, mainly because smokers think they're safer. And enough smokers apparently can't be bothered to discard their butts properly that cigarette butts are the single-most collected type of litter on California's sidewalks, roadsides, and beaches. Caltrans spends $41 million a year just cleaning up discarded butts, and the tiny City and County of San Francisco spends $6 million a year on the same task in its 49 square miles.

"Cigarette butts are the most commonly collected waste item in the world, and with this legislation, California can show how the volume of this waste and its impact on the environment can be substantially reduced," said former Assistant Surgeon General Dr. Thomas Novotny, professor of Public Health at SDSU and CEO of the Cigarette Butt Pollution Project.

It'll be interesting to watch the reaction to the bill from the tobacco lobby. The three billion cigarette butts discarded yearly in the San Francisco Bay Area, after all, translate to more than a billion dollars in retail sales.

For ongoing environmental coverage in March 2017 and afterward, please visit our show Earth Focus, or browse Redefine for historic material.
KCET's award-winning environment news project Redefine ran from July 2012 through February 2017.

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