Litter and Lungs: The Many Ways Cigarettes Are Impacting You

Photo by: Lindsay Bernsen
Photo by: Lindsay Bernsen

Save the Bay’s most recent pollution prevention initiative, the Butt Free Bay Campaign, is fighting the flow of toxic, plastic cigarette butts into the San Francisco Bay. We are currently calling on Bay Area cities and counties to pass outdoor smoking bans to stop the constant flow of this poison trash at the source, and protect the Bay from second hand smoke. El Cerrito responded to the call in October 2014 and adopted the Smoking Pollution Protection Ordinance. As of this year, El Cerrito law prohibits smoking in parks, recreation areas, trails, city property, public sidewalks, and commercial areas!

El Cerrito’s progress has not just been noticed by Save the Bay. The American Lung Association recently released their 2015 “State of Tobacco Control” grades for all California communities, and El Cerrito’s grade changed from an F to an A since last year’s report. The American Lung Association grades cities based on several categories, including smoke-free outdoor air, smoke-free housing, and reduced sales of tobacco products.  Save the Bay worked closely with the El Cerrito city council after last year’s grade report to educate city officials on the environmental impacts of cigarette butt litter in our Bay, and we couldn’t be more excited about their success.

In the 2015 year, we are hoping to see many more cities following in El Cerrito’s footsteps by adopting comprehensive ordinances that strongly restrict outdoor smoking. The American Lung Association report showed that a shocking 49 Bay Area communities still receive a failing grade for regulating smoking outdoors, which indicates cigarette litter and second hand smoke are an ongoing and concerning issue for the bay.

Save the Bay has chosen to focus strongly on this litter item after our success with plastic bags and Styrofoam food ware because cigarette butts are consistently the top litter item collected on our shores every coastal cleanup day. The filter top, although fibrous, is actually made of plastic, meaning that it does not biodegrade and can linger in our oceans for centuries. Finally, cigarettes also leach toxins and heavy metals into the water, threatening our water quality and wildlife.

Outdoor smoking is a major concern for Save the Bay because there is a 65% littering rate for cigarette butts, and an estimated 3 billion cigarette butts are washed into the Bay each year. In San Mateo, which received a D grade by the American Lung Association overall, over 500 cigarettes were collected by Save the Bay at one bus stop alone. Littered cigarettes cost millions in cleanup for our cities, with San Francisco estimating it spends 6 million dollars annually on cigarette clean up alone, while much of this trash is still flowing into our waterways, and eventually the Bay.

Cigarette butts pollute our waterways, while second hand smoke continues to threaten public health. While the environmental impacts of cigarettes are relatively recent concerns, the impacts of second hand smoke are well known, but discussed less and less often. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention released their 2015 report on second hand smoke, revealing the terrifying, and often ignored, truth that millions of non-smokers are exposed to the dangers of cigarette smoke. Low income and minority communities have higher second hand smoke exposure, with 43% of nonsmokers below the poverty line exposed to second hand smoke. Among African Americans, 50% percent of adult non-smokers, and a shocking 70% of children are exposed to toxic second hand smoke each year. Overall, 40% of children nationwide are impacted by cigarette smoke. The Bay Area has some of the highest rates of asthma in kids, with cigarette smoke known to be a major asthma trigger. In Alameda county, the hospitalization rate of children with asthma is twice the state average, and hospitalization rate in West Oakland is five times the average.

Save the Bay is hoping to see more Bay Area cities create stronger policies based on the American Lung Association grades, and we look forward to continuing our work with local governments to educate officials and the public on the dangers of toxic cigarette waste. We need to stop this pollution at the source to keep our air and waters clean. Sign our petition calling on your city to pass an outdoor smoking ban to protect both the Bay, and the health of our children.

Outdoor Smoking Bans: Your Questions Answered

After we announced that our Butt Free Bay initiative would be focused on working with cities and counties to pass outdoor smoking bans, we got some questions from our members asking whether this is the best approach to preventing the 3 billion cigarette butts that are littered in the Bay Area annually from reaching the Bay.

 On March 19, National Kick Butts Day, we hosted a tweet chat with several environmental and public health partners to answer your questions. This blog is a compilation of the questions and answers from us and our partners. We hope to get people talking about solutions that could work for their communities.

If your questions aren’t answered here, please leave a comment below and we’ll address them. Participants included The American Lung Association in California (@californialung), Change Lab Solutions (@changelabworks), San Francisco Department of the Environment  (@sfenvironment), and UC Berkeley’s Tobacco Free program (@cacreeks).