From Ban to Butt

After local and state governments banned indoor smoking two decades ago, the Bay Area’s waterways became choked with cigarette butts.


Allison Chan displays some butts retrieved from the banks of Lake Merritt.

Photos by Stephen Texeira

In 1995, California became the first state in the nation to enact a ban on indoor smoking. In the years afterward, local and state governments throughout the country established similar indoor-smoking bans, thereby pushing smokers out of bars, restaurants, and workplaces and onto sidewalks. But while the health benefits of these bans have been clear, the well-intentioned laws have come with a downside: Smokers have been flicking untold numbers of illegally discarded cigarette butts into gutters and onto streets and sidewalks each year, and those butts have washed into the nation’s waterways.

It’s become a toxic littering crisis that no amount of public outreach, public notices, and well-intended laws have been able to stamp out. On top of that, there is virtually no police enforcement against the problem, leaving the matter almost entirely in the hands of activist groups and volunteers.

The best estimate by researchers is that about 65 percent of cigarettes become an illegally discarded butt, according to Allison Chan, the Clean Bay Campaign manager with Oakland-based environmental organization Save the Bay.

Chan said that even where there are cigarette butt receptacles—at bus stops, for example—smokers still tend to toss their butts on the ground. “There might be three butts in the receptacle and dozens on the ground around it,” she said.

The typical cigarette butt is made of plastic and so is not biodegradable. Worse, butts contain toxins that multiple studies have shown can harm or kill fish. No one knows how many cigarette butts wind up in Bay Area waterways, but it’s probably tens or hundreds of millions every year.

Eben Schwartz, the California Coastal Commission’s marine debris program manager and coordinator of the annual Coastal Cleanup Day, said cigarette butts have been the most prevalent form of litter collected by volunteers during the event for more than 25 years. He said a portion of the Cleanup Day’s thousands of volunteers submit precise counts of their collected litter. Each year, the volunteers report about 300,000 cigarette butts collected during the three-hour collection period, he said.

“But that’s only some of the volunteers, and those 300,000 cigarette butts might be just 10 percent of what’s collected,” he said. And since Cleanup Day, which took place this year on Sept. 17, runs for just several hours, it can be safely assumed that those 3 million cigarette butts collected are themselves just a tiny fraction of the total quantity flowing down gutters and into the bay and ocean.

Since there seems to be no way to convince smokers not to illegally flick their butts on the ground, Save the Bay is scaling up its efforts by attacking not the littering problem but smoking itself.


“We’ve made efforts to ask people not to litter their cigarette butts, but from the perspective of policy, we think the most effective approach would be for cities to limit the areas of outdoor smoking and then be communicative about those regulations,” Chan said. That second part—the outreach—is essential, Chan said. While bans on public smoking have been passed in places, the problem, she explained, is that there has often been little done to inform the public of the law.

She said her organization is urging cities to be more proactive in educating smokers on where it is legal to smoke and where it is not. She said research has shown that if smokers are aware they’re in a smoke-free zone, they are much less inclined to light up, and since smoking usually results in littering, effective education campaigns could sharply curb the illegal disposal of toxic cigarette butts.

In fact, Santa Monica has experienced positive results by simply posting no-smoking signs on the beach. Schwartz says that in the years since the signs went up in 2009, cigarette butt prevalence in Cleanup Day beach litter has dipped by 60 percent. However, volunteers now report more cigarette butts in beachside parking lots, Schwartz said. “So the law might not actually be stopping people from littering,” he said.

The task at hand is heavy for Save the Bay—and police appear to be too busy to help. While it’s been estimated that 3 billion cigarette butts are illegally discarded each year in the Bay Area, citations against smokers who create the problem are practically nonexistent. In a five-year period from 2011 through 2015, the Berkeley Police Department, for example, ticketed people littering cigarette butts only 27 times, according to information received through a California Public Records Act request.

Earlier this year, a proposed law that would have banned single-use plastic filters on the butt end of cigarettes would have essentially solved the problem. However, the powerful tobacco lobby made sure that Assembly Bill 48 did not become law.

In addition, Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed Senate Bill 1333 on Sept. 29. The legislation would have outlawed smoking at California’s state parks and beaches. That proposed ban, like others, would have depended on police and park rangers to enforce it.

Still, Chan contends that the war on cigarette butts can be won with or without the help of law enforcement. Society must simply make it clear to smokers that what they are doing is illegal, offensive, and unwelcomed, she said.

“We really need to de-normalize smoking.”

Published online on Oct. 5, 2016 at 8:00 a.m.

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