The two great nanny-state forces—anti-tobacco activists and nitpicking environmentalists—have joined forces to take on a common foe: cigarette filters.
"They make it easier for people to smoke," Thomas Novotny, a professor of public health at San Diego State University, tells NBC. "It's also a major contaminant, with all that plastic waste. It seems like a no-brainer to me that we can't continue to allow this."
Novotny is now being joined by the anti-tobacco Truth Initiative—which launched a "Better Butts" campaign last week—and the environmental group 5 Gyges, which included cigarette butts on its Better Alternatives Now (B.A.N.) 2.0 list. California Assemblyman Mike Stone (D-Monterey) has introduced legislation to ban filtered cigarettes, and San Francisco is now charging a 60-cent litter surcharge on all packs of smokes sold.
As with the efforts to ban plastic straws, the argument is that the huge number of filters carelessly discarded each day—usually made from a plastic material—eventually end up in the world's plastic-saturated oceans.
Novotny tells NBC that two thirds of cigarette butts wind up as litter. The Truth Initiative describes them as "the most littered item ON EARTH" (their capitalization, not mine). NBC says filters are "the number one man-made contaminant in the world's oceans."
That latter description is a bit over-eager. While cigarette butts do make up a healthy plurality of th litter picked up off California's coastline (about 35 percent), this is not the same thing as the percentage of plastic marine debris made of cigarette butts. According to a March 2018 study, a large majority of the infamous Great Pacific Garbage Patch is made up of discarded or lost fishing nets and other fishing industry gear, such as ropes, crates, and baskets.
Cigarette butts are indeed the most littered item. They comprise over a third of the country's litter, according to the Keep America Beautiful (KAB) survey—which has in past years been funded by grants from tobacco company Phillip Morris. But that has not translated into an outsized impact on wildlife. A 2016 survey of ocean scientists and marine debris experts ranked butts behind not just all that fishing gear but more scarce items, such as balloons (which make up about 1 percent of the items collected during coastal clean-ups.)
In any case, there's a much less intrusive way to cut back on tobacco-related litter. Over the past several decades, smokers have been increasingly shunted out of restaurants, bars, and patios—where businesses have been happy to put out ash trays for them, and where aimlessly tossing a butt aside is both more noticeable and less acceptable—and onto city streets. One obvious consequence is that they litter more.
KAB notes that "one of the strongest predictors of cigarette butt littering is the number of ash receptacles." Merely adding more such receptacles on city streets and at workplaces would substantially reduce the number of butts getting into the waste stream.
San Francisco offers evidence for this. In 2010 the city government passed strict new anti-smoking laws which barred lighting up on patios and within 15 feet of open doorways and windows. The change also required Bay City businesses to ditch their outdoor ash trays less they be seen as encouraging people to smoke in now prohibited areas. As the San Francisco Examiner soon noted, people kept smoking—but now their discarded filters piled up in front of businesses instead of in the trash.
The city is now (slightly) reversing course, adding more public ash trays but also raising taxes to pay for them.
If you want to cut down on littered butts while preserving the joy some people obtain from smoking a filtered cigarette, politicians and activists should suppress their normal instinct to adopt the most coercive possible policies and look instead at ways to both cut down on litter and expand personal choice. They might, say, let property owners decide if they want to put ash trays in front of their business—or even (gasp!) at the bar.
Rent Free is a weekly newsletter from Christian Britschgi on urbanism and the fight for less regulation, more housing, more property rights, and more freedom in America's cities.