Cigarette butts are found nearly everywhere. Thrown with hardly a care, they’re scattered even in places where no one is supposed to smoke, such as parks and beaches.
On June 16, a Vancouver experiment will test a proposed way to reduce, if not eliminate, this most common form of litter in many cities. Volunteers with West End Cleanup are going to buy butts. The deal? One penny for each one turned in.
Although the trial was planned by WEC, a community-based group that has been doing monthly neighbourhood cleanups since 2007, results may validate what has been on Dr. Stuart Kreisman’s mind for some time.
Kreisman, an endocrinologist with St. Paul’s Hospital, believes that a cigarette-butt refund could be as effective as the recycling system in place for most beverage containers. “When was the last time you saw a bottle littered?” Kreisman asked in a phone interview with the Georgia Straight. “They’re gone. Somebody litters them and they’re picked up a second later. So it will be the same thing with cigarette butts.”
Kreisman has proposed to the province a returnable deposit of one dollar, paid on purchase, per pack of 20 cigarettes. The program would refund the loonie upon return of the 20 butts, and it would also pay people who didn’t purchase the smokes a penny for every stub they pick up.
His principal concern about cigarette stubs is environmental in nature: butts are nonbiodegradable, so they last a long time. They also leach toxic chemicals that are harmful to certain marine and freshwater species.
As well, there is a human-health dimension to this. In a 2009 research paper titled “Cigarettes Butts and the Case for an Environmental Policy on Hazardous Cigarette Waste” published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, California-based researchers proposed a ban on filtered cigarettes.
“Rather than being a protective health device, cigarette filters are primarily a marketing tool to help sell ‘safe’ cigarettes,” the authors stated. “They are perceived by much of the public (especially current smokers) to reduce the health risks of smoking through technology.” They noted that filters “actually may serve to sustain smoking by making it seem less urgent for smokers to quit and easier for children to initiate smoking because of reduced irritation from early experimentation”.
Kreisman, who is also a UBC clinical assistant professor, suggested as an untested hypothesis that having fewer butts around might have health benefits.
“They keep seeing cigarette butts,” he said about people trying to quit. “It keeps putting them in their mind: ‘I haven’t smoked yet. I’m having withdrawal.’ But if they don’t see a cigarette butt, they don’t think about it.”
It could also reduce smoking in places where lighting up is not allowed. “You see a whole bunch of butts, you’re going to say, ‘Oh, screw it. They did it; I’m going to do it too,’” Kreisman said. “But if you don’t see any evidence that anybody else has broken the law, then I think you’re less likely to break the law yourself.”
Kreisman has joined forces with WEC block captain John Merzetti and other like-minded people from elsewhere in B.C. to form the ad hoc Cigarette Deposit Committee.
WEC’s butt-buying experiment will utilize a $500 grant from the Vancouver Foundation and will be administered by the local Gordon Neighbourhood House. According to Merzetti, his group has been pushing the city to do something about butts but only Green councillor Adriane Carr has been receptive.
For Merzetti, imperfect smoking regulations have produced an unintended result. “They forced people outside to smoke but didn’t think policy through and put out ashtrays where people could butt out their cigarettes,” Merzetti told the Straight by phone. “So we have a situation now where butts are just piling up.”
West End Cleanup will have its butt-buying booth at Denman and Barclay streets from noon to 6 p.m. on June 16, coinciding with the neighbourhood’s car-free day. The group’s mascot, Butthead, will be there.