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San Francisco to double litter fee on cigarette sales

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San Francisco’s litter fee on cigarette sales will increase to 40 cents on Jan. 1, 2016, to offset the costs of cleanup crews in San Francisco. The City generated more than $2 million last year through the litter fees. (Connor Hunt/Special to S.F. Examiner)

For the first time since imposing a litter fee on the purchases of cigarettes six years ago, San Francisco is doubling the surcharge on Jan. 1.

Every pack of cigarettes sold starting next year will come with a 40 cent fee, double the current fee. Last fiscal year, an estimated 11.9 million packs of cigarettes were purchased in San Francisco, generating more than $2 million in fee revenue for litter cleanup crews.

The City says it could charge up to 84 cents to fully recoup the cleanup costs of discarded butts and other related items like wrappers, foil and lighters.

Even though cigarette-related litter is down, according to a 2014 litter study used to justify the fee hike, the percentage of tobacco-related litter has significantly increased from the previous 22 percent of all litter to 53 percent.

Another factor driving the fee increase is the Department of Public Works is spending more on litter cleanup in San Francisco’s public spaces, increasing from $16.6 million in fiscal year 2012-13 to $21.4 million in fiscal year 2014-15. The analysis shows that The City’s costs for tobacco-related litter cleaning increased from $3.7 million to $11.4 million during the same time frame.

“Setting the fee at the permissible level of 84 cents per pack would result in a 400 percent increase from the current fee level of 20 cents per pack,” said City Controller Ben Rosenfield’s memo to the Board of Supervisors. “In order to reduce the volatility of the fee level, the Controller’s Office is limiting the fee increase to 40 cents per pack, an increase of 100 percent.”

At one retailer near City Hall on Thursday, a pack of cigarettes was selling for as much as $7.49, before tax.

In 2009, as The City’s budget was facing a significant deficit, the Department of Public Works proposed the fee, approved by the Board of Supervisors and mayor, to help defray costs. Other fee proposals surfaced a year later, such as one on the sale of alcohol and another on fast-food wrappers. Both those fees died for lack of political support.

San Francisco’s tax collector Jose Cisneros sent letters earlier this month to cigarette retailers alerting them of the fee hike. “You are responsible for collecting the new fee on all packs of cigarettes sold,” the letters said.

The legislation, adopted in 2009, authorizes the city controller, in this case Ben Rosenfield, to adjust the fee without additional approval, which he has done.

HDR, Inc, an engineering firm with officers in the Mission, conducted the 2014 litter analysis, examining 32 sites, each 200 feet in length and 18 feet wide, around The City. The same sites were used in a 2009 litter study.

“The 2014 litter study found that 53 percent of litter consisted of tobacco-related litter,” the study found. “This result differed substantially from the results of the 2009 litter study which found that 22 percent of all litter was tobacco-related. The primary reason for this difference was that the sites were substantially cleaner in 2014 (with a total of 3,881 individual pieces of litter) than they were in 2009 (with 12,123 individual pieces of litter).”

The site with the most litter found was 20th Street and Folsom Street, in the Mission, at 285 pieces of litter, of which 172 were tobacco-related products, such as cigarette butts, cigar butts, cigarette packs, cellophane from cigarette packs, wrappers, tobacco foil products, lighters, matchboxes and matches.

The second highest count for litter was in North Beach at Francisco Street and Mason Street, where 260 pieces of litter were counted, 159 of which were tobacco-related.

The cleanest of the 32 sites was in Hayes Valley at Fell Street and Franklin Street, where just 42 pieces of litter were counted, 17 of which were tobacco-related.

Department of Public Works spokeswoman Rachel Gordon said the revenue boost will help improve the cleanliness of neighborhoods.

“Cigarette butts are a major contributor to litter in San Francisco and often are labor-intensive to pick up,” Gordon said. While crews use brooms or mechanical street sweepers, many butts are “tossed into tree wells or that get caught between the sidewalk squares and must be picked up by hand,” according to Gordon.

She added that “there still are a lot of smokers who fling the cigarette butts without consideration for the blight and the environmental harm they cause.”

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