UPDATE 4/19/2016: The East Bay Regional Parks District’s Board of Directors finally adopted a smoking ban on Tuesday, April 19. We have been advocating for a comprehensive ban on smoking in the parks since 2014 when our volunteers cleaned a staggering number of cigarette butts from the Martinez Regional Shoreline. While the policy the parks district adopted will prohibit smoking in most areas of the parks, it includes an exemption that will allow smoking to continue at campsites. The Board of Directors included this exemption despite being called upon to adopt a complete ban by a coalition of environmental and public health organizations, including the Alameda Tobacco Control Program and the Alameda County Tobacco Prevention Coalition, and over 300 Save The Bay activists. The board has agreed to reconsider the exemption next year and indicated they may place cigarette disposal receptacles in campgrounds to discourage littering. Save The Bay will continue to advocate for a comprehensive policy that keeps toxic tobacco litter out of our parks and out of the creeks that flow to our Bay until smoking is prohibited in all areas of the parks district.
In mid-April, the Board of Directors of the East Bay Regional Parks District will vote on an ordinance to ban smoking in all 120,536 acres of the 65 parks in their jurisdiction. This long overdue policy is an important step toward reducing the flow of toxic, plastic cigarette butts into the Bay.
It would seem like a no-brainer to keep cigarettes, with their associated health impacts and wild fire danger, out of parks where people go to seek out health and enjoy nature. Unfortunately, the East Bay Regional Parks has not yet banned smoking even though many cities around the Bay have decided to keep cigarette smoke and cigarette litter out of their recreation areas and parks.
In addition to the fire hazard posed by discarded cigarettes, toxic butts, and littered cartons pollute our creeks and Bay, and second-hand smoke poses unnecessary health hazards to parks visitors. Cigarette butts are a pernicious problem in our open spaces and ordinances like the one the East Bay Parks will consider are one of our best tools for fighting them.
A plastic wolf in the white fuzz of sheep’s clothing
Cigarette butts are not biodegradable. The ubiquitous cigarette filter is made from cellulose acetate – a type of plastic similar to Rayon – and will persist in the environment indefinitely. These plastic fibers were added to cigarettes in the Mad Men era when tobacco companies turned to ever more elaborate measures to fool the public into thinking their products were safe. In fact, these “filters” do nothing to protect smokers from harmful chemicals, but they have remained on the ends of cigarettes, and in our creeks and bay, ever since.
Save The Bay estimates that over 3 billion of these highly toxic butts are littered in the Bay Area each year, threatening water quality and wildlife in the Bay. Once in the creeks, butts leach toxic chemicals including acetic acid, chromium, and arsenic into the water. This soup of chemicals is deadly to fish and marine life even at low concentrations.
The most horrible part of the danger cigarette litter poses to our environment is that people do not seem to think of cigarette butts as trash when they litter them. As a result, cigarette butts have been the most commonly found trash on Coastal Cleanup day for the past 20 years.
The scale of the trash problem posed by cigarette butts requires us to change our thinking about smoking. If we de-normalize smoking in public places and call attention to the fact that smoking produces litter, we can begin to change behavior and chip away at the litter problem.
The East Bay Regional Parks District’s parks would not be the first smoke-free parks in the region. Nearly all of the municipalities that border East Bay Regional Parks already have ordinances that restrict smoking in parks and recreation areas. These bans are a simple and effective way to start changing attitudes towards smoking and cigarette litter. A clear and comprehensive ban on smoking in our regional parks will create regional cohesion and further de-normalize outdoor smoking and its harmful effects on the environment.
In order to have an impact, this ordinance needs to be implemented in such a way that it causes people to think twice before smoking in the parks and causes them to think about where their cigarette butts are going. This means clear signage in parking lots, campsites and at trail heads. Additionally, it will require parks staff to work to educate park visitors about the rule, and about the harmful impacts of tobacco litter on the environment. It also means that conscientious park visitors will need to educate others about the rule so people feel a social responsibility to avoid smoking in the parks. The more people stop to think, the more behavior will change and the cleaner our creeks and Bay will be.
The East Bay Regional Parks should be completely smoke-free
This policy will have enormous benefits to the ecosystems within the parks as well as the people who visit and use them, and it makes sense to have policies that protect public and environmental health in areas set aside to respect nature and enjoy the outdoors in a healthy way. In order to make a strong case to the Board of Directors, we have partnered with other environmental advocates and advocates from the public health community, including the American Lung Association, Clean Water Action, and the Alameda County Tobacco Control Coalition.
Last Thursday, we and many other advocates for smoke-free parks went to the EBRP Board’s Operations Committee meeting. The three-member committee heard testimony from environmental and public health advocates calling to prohibit smoking in all parts of our regional parks to prevent exposure to second-hand smoke and cigarette butt litter. They also received a letter signed by half a dozen environmental and public health organizations in addition to separate letters written by the American Lung Association, the City of Berkeley, and the Watershed Project urging them to ban smoking in the parks with no exceptions. On top of all that, 271 Save The Bay supporters sent messages to the committee calling to protect the health of our parks.
The committee voted to ban smoking in all areas of the parks with one major exception: The ordinance will continue to allow smoking at campsites. Their logic is that campsites are already smoky from campfires and so there is no additionally public health threat from tobacco. However, this policy ignores the litter smokers leave behind.
We still have an opportunity to fight for a stronger ordinance. As the full board vote approaches in April, we will need your help to convince the board to adopt the strongest policy possible. Not only do we need a strong ordinance on the books, but we need to see less litter in our parks and in the Bay. Stay tuned for opportunities to make your voice heard.