The case against cigarette butts

    Tobacco waste litters beaches and sidewalks.

    Turns out smoking is harmful for fish, too. Trout aren’t lighting up, but environmentalists say, marine life can be the victim when smokers thoughtlessly flick their butts to the ground.
    (Photo: / CC BY 2.0)

    Listen: [audio:091127tebutts.mp3]

    During a public health meeting in Philadelphia this month, San Diego State Professor Thomas Novotny presented his case against cigarette butts.

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    Novotny: These things contain the chemicals that would classify them as a toxic, hazardous waste product and therefore subject them to much more strict regulation, restrictions and fines and other kinds of interventions that could hopefully reduce their impact on the environment.

    Other experts are studying why smokers are so careless. Many think cigarette butts are biodegradable, but the filters are made of plastic and may take as long as a decade to decompose. Novotny wants smokers to pick up their tobacco litter, but one survey suggests smokers are unlikely to change their behavior. Others counter that people have learned to pick up after their dogs, and that waste is biodegradable.

    Novotny says tobacco waste is more than an eyesore.

    Novotny: It is the single most littered item in the world. Five point six trillion cigarettes are dumped in the environment somewhere every year, and they contain chemicals, heavy metals, nicotine, poisons; things that come into smokers lungs and cause disease that then go into the environment.

    This year, San Francisco added a 20 cent fee to every pack of cigarettes sold in the city. Officials will use the money to offset the cost of litter clean up.

    A health economist from New Jersey helped San Francisco officials figure out that their city spends about $6 million a year to clean up tobacco waste. John Schneider says indoor bans drove smokers outside, and now the streets, beaches and parks are littered with castoff cigarette butts.

    Schneider: They’re toxic to pets, they’re toxic to children, they’re toxic to marine wildlife, and toxic probably to many other kinds of wildlife as well.

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