COMMENTARY: Indoor Smoking Bans

Protecting Non-Smokers, but Taking a Toll on the Environment?

Indoor smoking bans are spreading rapidly around the world as cities, states and even countries are adopting a more effective way to protect non-smokers from the harmful effects of second-hand cigarette smoke—banishing smokers to the great outdoors.

Ireland, Norway, the United Kingdom and Italy have banned smoking in workplaces and public buildings, planes, trains, buses, restaurants, bars and other public spaces, and other European countries are likely to follow their lead. Though smoking was supposedly entrenched in France, and this nation of Gaulloises puffers was not expected to give in without a fight, a countrywide smoking ban in public spaces goes into effect there in early 2007. In the U.S., more than 150 areas around the country have now eliminated smoking in public places and the workplace, and California is paving the way for smoking bans on public beaches.

While I applaud the introduction of these bans—after all, why should non-smokers suffer from health complications after inhaling second-hand smoke, or come out of restaurants and bars smelling of stale cigarettes?—there has been little consideration of the negative impacts that result from pushing smokers to the great outdoors. Few smokers understand that cigarette filters are not biodegradable and take the time to dispose of them in the trash, so these bans result in a significant increase in cigarette litter. Most cigarette filters are made of cellulose acetate—in other words, plastic.

Cigarette litter has been a problem for as long as people have smoked, and especially since filtered cigarettes became popular in the mid-20th century following the discovery of a cause-effect relationship between smoking and cancer. Estimates from the World Health Organization suggest that close to 1.1 billion people—or one third of all people above the age of 15—smoke. When each of these smokers consumes an average of several cigarettes a day, one can only begin to picture the number of cigarette butts disposed of in streets, parks and other public places every single day. Discarded cigarettes have been reported—prior to any indoor smoking ban—to be as high as 4.5 trillion each year, according to Yahoo News in 1999, and it is estimated that cigarette butts account for 50 percent of all litter in the world.

I have visited many cities that have suffered from the "cigarette butt invasion" following the introduction of indoor smoking bans. The Industry Council for Packaging and the Environment (INCPEN) found that the incidence of cigarette butt littering in London increased by more than 43 percent between 1996 and 2004 as more businesses forced smokers to stand outside. The Irish Business Against Litter organization estimated in 2004 that an extra 200 million cigarette butts would be dumped on the streets every year as a direct result of the government’s workplace smoking ban.

In the U.S., a local news station in California, KBHS/KHOG, reported in 2004 that, although Fayeteville’s new smoking ban has led to cleaner air, concerned citizens and business owners have noticed a dramatic increase in cigarette litter since the ban was introduced. People living in cities with such bans are noticing the growing piles of cigarette butts outside restaurants and bars where smokers huddle. As Jane Bickerstaffe, director of INCPEN, says, "If you look around outside offices, where smokers hang out, you will see cigarette butts piling up. If you make more people smoke outside bars and clubs that is just going to get worse."

Why does all this matter? Why should we care that more and more cigarette butts are littering our streets following the introduction of these bans? Don’t these cigarette ends just disappear as the streets are cleaned? Unfortunately the answer is mostly no. Many cigarette butts are flushed down storm drains by rain and other water runoff into rivers and oceans before the street cleaner can get to them, and these butts degrade water quality and harm aquatic life.

The paper and tobacco of cigarette butts may be biodegradable, but the filters are not, and persist in the environment as long as other forms of plastic. These filters are composed of a bundle of 12,000 cellulose acetate fibers and are reported to take between 18 months and 10 years to decompose, depending on the environment they’re in. Once decomposed, they remain chemically present in the environment, as they contain up to 4,000 chemicals including hydrogen, cyanide and arsenic. Toxological data has shown that chemicals from discarded cigarette butts are capable of leaching into surrounding waterways. One particular problem is that these leached chemicals are deadly to the water flea Daphnia magna, a small crustacean at the lower end of, but crucial to, the aquatic food chain.

The saddest environmental impact of cigarette butts is their role in the deaths of thousands of marine mammals and birds every year. These wild creatures mistake the butts for food. Once ingested, the butts can lead to starvation or malnutrition if they block the intestinal track, and can also prevent breathing by blocking vital air passages. In 2003, the United Nations International Maritime Organization reported that cigarette litter adversely affected 177 species of marine animals and 111 species of seabirds through ingestion.

There no hard data showing a direct link between smoking bans and increased death of animals through ingestion of cigarette butts yet, but it is likely such a direct link will be identified, notably in coastal cities and states. As the number of discarded cigarette butts continues to grow, so do the number of cigarettes flushed into storm drains. Cigarette litter is actually getting worse in coastal areas, with cigarette butts forming the lion’s share of beach litter. In 2004, half a million volunteers of the Ocean Conservancy’s International Coastal Cleanup picked up an impressive 1.6 million butts from shorelines.

The solution to the cigarette litter problem is simple to implement. First, it is clear that a strong educational message is needed. I came across a pile of studies demonstrating that smokers who would never litter other, bigger objects have no concept that they are littering when they throw their cigarette remains on the ground. One 2000 study by the Environmental Protection Agency of New South Wales found overwhelming evidence that smokers are not aware or do not believe that the cigarette butts they fling have any sort of environmental impact.

Another study by Australia’s Beverage Industry Environment Council revealed that four out of five people observed littering cigarettes do not consider them to be litter. Margaret Hodge of the Volusia County, Florida recycling program summarizes the issue very well: "People don’t understand that the filter of a cigarette is designed to last forever, so they just toss it out thinking that it will just go away. But it doesn"t." My personal experience has validated the fact that the majority of smokers flick their cigarettes wherever and whenever.

Modifying the littering behavior of smokers is therefore an important step that any city, state or country introducing an indoor smoking ban must take to help reduce increases in cigarette litter. The educational message must be clear and consistent to ensure that behavior is changed for the long-term. I am positive that an important percentage of smokers would alter their littering behavior if they knew that cigarette butts are made

of plastic, not cotton or paper, and that they contain chemicals which pollute near water sources and adversely impact wildlife.

According to the Clean Virginia Waterways website, studies have already demonstrated that smoking-related litter can be decreased by 50 percent or more through educational campaigns that underline the negative reverberation of cigarette litter on nature. Australian surveys show the same results.

For the education campaign to work, we need well-placed bins for cigarette butts. In one survey, more than 80 percent of smokers said they would dispose properly of their butts if suitable bins were available. These receptacles need to be where people are most likely to discard their cigarettes, for example at all entry/exit points of buildings and outside bars, restaurants and clubs. Following the introduction of indoor smoking bans throughout Scotland in 2005, the Edinburgh City Council decided to invest in stub-out plates to be fitted to 1,000 bins across the city center to encourage smokers to dispose of butts responsibly. The new plates went hand-in-hand with an advertising campaign encouraging smokers to keep the streets clean, doubled with a 50 on-the-spot fine for littering cigarette butts.

But how do cities pay for all this? The answer is pretty simple, even though smokers will protest heavily: Anti-litter taxes and fines. In some U.S. states, anti-litter taxes are already in place for canned and bottled beverages to support anti-litter efforts. The same could apply for cigarettes, and would go a long way in helping reduce cigarette-related litter. Surely the cost of cleaning up cigarette butts should not fall upon non-smokers!

In the spring 1999 issue of the Tobacco Control journal, researchers actually called for additional taxes on tobacco products to go towards clean-up efforts. The levying of additional taxes on cigarette products to fund environmental campaigns and clean-ups has also been identified as an important way to mitigate the "cigarette butt problem." Additionally, cigarette-litter fines should be visibly enforced and implemented as part of a comprehensive anti-cigarette litter campaign.

Taking things a little further, the tobacco industry should be encouraged to take an active and responsible role in educating smokers about adequate cigarette littering behavior. While tobacco manufacturers have taken some positive steps at educating smokers about the negative health effects of smoking through ad campaigns and labeling on cigarette packets, they have made little to no effort at any form of anti-litter education.

One significant measure was taken by Philip Morris, which in 2003 began carrying an anti-litter logo on several brands. "We believe we have a role to play on the reduction of litter" said spokeswoman Jennifer Golisch at the time. But the company’s effort was limited, and has not been followed by others. Tobacco manufacturers need to take this role more seriously and adopt a widespread and aggressive educational approach, with messages urging the proper disposal of cigarette butts appearing on cigarette packets and advertisements.

FLORENCE DEPONDT has served as Program Coordinator for the Coral Reef Research Foundation in San Francisco.

CONTACT:; Clean Virginia Waterways

The Coral Reef