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SF’s cigarette ‘litter’ fee on packs sold increases to 60 cents

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The fee the city of San Francisco imposes on cigarette sales has increased by 50 percent. The money is used by The City to help clean streets of the litter associated with smoking, such as cigarette butts and the plastic wrap cigarettes are packaged in. (Ekevara Kitpowsong/ Special to S.F. Examiner)

San Francisco’s fee on cigarette sales to pay for cleaning up litter has increased 50 percent for a total of 60 cents per pack.

Around 12 million packs of cigarettes are sold in San Francisco annually, and a large portion of those smoked butts — and packaging like plastic wrap and foil — end up strewn across The City.

During the downturn in the economy, pre-tech boom, The City approved the fee for a revenue boost for cleanup of city streets. Other such fees were explored but never moved forward, such as a fast food fee, to clean up that debris.

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The fee started at 20 cents per pack in 2010 but the City Controller can increase it annually. The first adjustment came in January 2016, when it was doubled to 40 cents as the labor costs for cleanup had continued to increase.

The sales of cigarettes are trending downward. The City Controller said there were 11,917,148 packs sold between October 2015 and September 2016 whereas during the previous 12 month period there were 11,927,281 packs sold. It’s unclear if the fee is prompting consumers to change their habits. The downward trend also comes as e-cigarettes have become more popular.

In the first three full fiscal years of the fee, annual packs sold began at 12.3 million, decreased to 12 million and then rose to 12.5 million — all while the fee remained at 20 cents.

The City generated about $2.86 million from the fee for the fiscal year July 2015 through June 2016, and in the current fiscal year is budgeted to generate $3.41 million.

The City is legally allowed to charge a fee resulting in revenue no more than cost recovery of what it takes to clean up the litter, though The City says it could charge a lot more.

The City Controller’s Office said The City could charge as much as 92 cents per pack.

“The increase in the maximum permissible fee from $0.84 last year to $0.92 is primarily due to a nearly 10 percent increase in [Department of Public Works] litter abatement costs, from $21.4 million in FY 2014-15 to $23.5 million in FY 2015-16.” The City says tobacco products are 53 percent of the total litter.

City officials offer no apologies to smokers having to fork over the surcharge.

Public Works spokesperson Rachel Gordon said the fee is needed to combat the litter bugs, and discarded butts are time consuming for the department’s road crews to pick up “because they get caught in cracks and crevices and often have to be picked up one at a time.”

“Cigarette litter, the butts in particular, are bad for the environment and blight our neighborhoods,” Gordon said. “The money The City receives from the cigarette fee helps us keep our city cleaner, and will be needed as long as people selfishly use our public spaces as ashtrays.”

The fee revenue is seemingly helping to improve cleanliness on sidewalks. Marks were higher for cleanliness in 2015-16, compared to the previous year, according to the City Controller’s street standards reported issued in October.

“Evaluators found less litter and grime across The City’s streets and sidewalks, and approximately twice as many more routes were free of ‘excessive’ litter compared to FY 2014-15,” the report reads.

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