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Ban the butts to flick toxic cigarette filters out of SF

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Department of Environment volunteers and paid youth from San Francisco Youth Works program with an ashcan at Dolores Park. (Courtesy Sunshine Swinford)

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From July to December 2017, San Francisco kept 100,000 butts off the streets by making cigarette ashcans publicly available in the Richmond and Sunset districts. That number will grow as the City installs more ashcans in other neighborhoods. San Francisco, in coordination with the National Park Service and nonprofit Surfrider, recently received a grant to expand the program.

“Cigarette butts are a huge problem in San Francisco and every other city in the world,” Sunshine Swinford, of the Department of Environment, told me. “When a smoker stomps on a butt to extinguish it, they leave it behind not realizing that it is plastic and toxic and will last for years in the environment.”

Awareness is growing though. Thanks to ashcans and other efforts, more smokers around the world are kicking the habit of flicking cigarettes on to the ground.

But a butt ban would be better. Not only would a ban educate smokers, but prohibiting cigarette filters could reduce litter, help the environment and keep kids and wildlife safer. As state efforts to prohibit cigarette filters slowly progress, city leaders have an opportunity to build on more public awareness and be the first to flick filters out of the environment.

Filters do not biodegrade and are loaded with chemicals, such as arsenic and lead. Left in the environment, they can poison children, wildlife and water. In two years, the American Association of Poison Control Centers reported approximately 12,600 cases of kids ingesting cigarettes or cigarette butts.

San Francisco leaders are aware of the serious impact cigarette litter has on The City. To reduce environmental and health threats, as well as the cost of cleanup, which totaled over six million dollars annually, the Board of Supervisors implemented the first cigarette litter abatement fee in 2009. Every retailer in San Francisco is now responsible of paying $0.75 per pack of cigarettes sold.

The tobacco industry also doesn’t deny that filters hurt the environment. Working with Keep America Beautiful, a nonprofit dedicated to helping people beautify their community, Philip Morris has funded development of a Cigarette Litter Prevention Program. The program provides people with pocket ashtrays and raises awareness about the issue.

Other nonprofits not affiliated with the tobacco industry are also raising awareness. On Monday of this week, the Truth Initiative, a national public health organization that directs and funds the truth about tobacco use, aired an infomercial about filters during the MTV Video Music Awards. According to the “cheeky” animation, all other butts are better than cigarette butts.

“We want to connect tobacco to things young people care about,” Eric Asche, chief marketing officer of the Truth Initiative, told me. “Environmental pollution is a major concern for young people looking to make a difference in the world today.”

State and local legislators should build on this growing concern and enact stronger laws to curb cigarette litter.

At the state level, Assemblyman Mark Stone, D-Monterey, has repeatedly introduced legislation to ban cigarette filters. While all three of his measures failed to make it past committee, the proposal has seen some progress. In 2014, it received two votes in the Assembly Committee on Governmental Organization. This year, it received five. There are twenty assembly members on the committee.

While Assemblyman Stone’s efforts are appreciated, cities like San Francisco may be able to ban butts faster. In June, City voters supported a ban on flavored tobacco products. Proposition E won with almost 70 percent of the vote, despite a multimillion dollar campaign by tobacco giant R.J. Reynolds.

San Franciscans may also be willing to support a butt ban, especially because cigarette filters could increase some health risks associated with smoking.

Robyn Purchia is an environmental attorney, environmental blogger and environmental activist who hikes, gardens and tree hugs in her spare time. Check her out at robynpurchia.com.

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