David Suzuki: Let’s get serious about cigarette litter—no ifs, ands or butts

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      Not long ago, dining out, going for a drink, working in an office, riding an airplane or intercity bus and going to a movie meant being subjected to second-hand smoke. Cigarette smoking was a fact of life, and smokers were everywhere—indoors and out.

      In many countries, including Canada, that’s changed. But it wasn’t without a fight. Restaurant and bar owners fretted loudly that regulations to limit smoking would destroy their businesses, and tobacco companies lobbied and launched massive PR campaigns to convince people that smoking wasn’t harmful, that new laws were an infringement on smokers’ rights, and that reducing smoking would devastate the economy.

      Through a combination of public education and government regulation, including taxation, profound societal change took place over a relatively short time. In 1965, half of Canadians smoked. By 2011, that had dropped to about 17.3 percent, or 4.9 million people, with only about 13.8 percent daily smokers. Unfortunately the downward trend has levelled off in recent years, and tobacco remains the leading cause of preventable death in Canada, according to researchers at the University of Waterloo.

      “More than 37,000 Canadians will die prematurely this year due to tobacco use. Each day, 100 Canadians die of a smoking-related illness,” the 2013 report, “Tobacco Use in Canada: Patterns and Trends”, says.

      With increasing regulation, high cigarette prices driven by “sin taxes” and the current stigma attached to smoking, it’s bewildering that people take up the pointless habit in the first place. Smoking prevalence is still highest among young adults, especially those aged 25 to 34, although education is a factor, with smoking rates for university graduates less than half those for people with less education.

      I sometimes wonder if it’s lack of education that causes many smokers to litter their butts without giving it a second thought. It’s astounding how many people who would likely not otherwise drop garbage on the ground see nothing wrong with flicking butts without regard for where they land. It may seem trivial, but it’s not.

      According to the Surfrider Foundation’s Hold on to Your Butt campaign, cigarette butts are the most littered item in the world, with 4.95 trillion tossed onto the ground or water every year. The U.S. spends about $11 billion a year on litter clean-up, and 32 percent of that is butts. They’re washed from the streets into storm drains and rivers and eventually to oceans and are the most prevalent type of debris collected in beach clean-ups around the world.

      The environmental impacts are nothing to sneeze at, either. Surfrider notes that cigarette butts are made of “cellulose acetate, a non-biodegradable plastic, which can take up to 25 years to decompose.” The toxic butts can be ingested by children and animals, especially birds and marine animals. Tossed cigarette butts are also a major fire risk.

      Obviously, the best way to reduce cigarette butt pollution is to step up efforts to prevent people from starting smoking and help those who have to quit. But we aren’t going to stop everyone from smoking overnight, so we have to find ways to address the litter problem. Again, a combination of public education and regulation will go a long way.

      In San Diego, Surfrider installed outdoor ashcans and gave smokers pocket ashtrays. Many places, including Vancouver, have banned smoking on beaches and in parks. Stepping up enforcement of litter laws also helps. Some people even recommend banning filtered cigarettes or at least requiring filters to be biodegradable, arguing they’re more of a marketing ploy than a safety feature. In Vancouver and other cities, some people have been pushing for a deposit-and-return system similar to those for bottles and cans.

      Besides reducing litter and environmental damage, methods that also increase the price of cigarettes have proven to be effective in reducing smoking rates.

      Some consider tobacco a sacred herb. It’s used by many indigenous peoples for ceremonial purposes. With widespread use spurred by marketing, it became a costly and unhealthy addiction and a toxic blight on the environment. Smoking trends in countries like Canada show that societal change is possible and—with education and regulation—people will do what’s best for themselves and for the world around them.

      Written with contributions from David Suzuki Foundation Communications Manager Ian Hanington. Learn more at www.davidsuzuki.org.



      Michael Puttonen

      Aug 6, 2013 at 6:27pm

      Zuk, as a smoker of all sorts of sacred herb, tobacco included, I have to agree with you...cigarette butts are the work of the devil.

      Now, see here: Whenever I'm out an about on some nearly deserted city street I've chosen, hurrying along, trying to avoid the contempt of the few non-smoking paragons I just can't seem to avoid, I swear that I'm sure to blank my butt in the sewer grate, NOT the sidewalk.

      I probably won't quit. But... Look on the bright side, Zuk. We smokers are a dying breed.


      Aug 6, 2013 at 8:39pm

      I smoke but never at parks, beaches, etc. I wont defend smoking but I won't attack either.I'm glad it's banned most places.
      There is no longer smoking allowed anywhere so people should maybe move on to more pertinent environmental damage by the hands of corporations !

      I get it - it's easier to give a fake cough at the bus stop or demonize smokers because most folks are too chicken to stand up for anything else. Stand up to government? Nope!! There's a filthy smoker! Either the ban the shit or don't--- but don't make something legal and then attack people who use it. Good, you don't smoke- it don't make you hero.


      Aug 6, 2013 at 10:10pm

      Good article.

      If cigarette filters are pollutants, and if they serve no health-giving function, and if users can't seem to dispose of them in a way that doesn't kill wildlife, then I don't know why they are allowed. Seems pretty obvious.

      In a free-ish society, the right to ingest one's favourite poison should be readily distinguished from the associated right to make a great deal of harmful litter that has no practical benefit!


      Aug 7, 2013 at 8:06am

      It would help somewhat if everyone did not pull out their public ashtrays in the past few years in hopes that smokers would move on to an area that had an ashtray.
      There would still be butts on the ground, but not nearly as many.

      When I was a smoker

      Aug 7, 2013 at 10:22am

      I was courteous around non smokers, and I did not litter my butts (or other litter for that fact). What I have noticed in Vancouver, particularly on the east side, is the disappearing garbage bins. I used to be able to toss my extinguished butts and trash at regular intervals while out walking. Now that I do not smoke, I still have a hard time finding cans to throw garbage into. These days it's more than just butts I see on the ground in my part of town, it's fast food containers, food wrappers, Starbucks cups...There is no denying butts are not great for the environment, but neither is litter of any kind. Please give us more cans on the East Side. If the overflowing messes along Commercial Drive (when there are actually cans) are any indication, people will use a can if it is there.


      Aug 7, 2013 at 10:57am

      governments will find that health costs are down but extended pensions with people liveing really long lives will more than eat up 10 times what the health costs were


      Aug 7, 2013 at 1:38pm

      It's not always contempt, guys. Some of us are actually struggling to breathe when we cough or *gasp* dare to look at you when you walk around with your lit cigarette on the street. We have to watch out for you, because one accidental inhalation of your cigarette smoke* can set off an asthma attack that can land us in the ER if our emergency inhalers don't work. (Happened to me twice last winter)

      And even when it works, taking a hit off that inhaler isn't fun--it makes my heart pound and my stomach sick, but since I have to breathe I do it even though it sucks. If I'm lucky, the worst effect I suffer from inhaling second hand smoke is a burning pain down the centre of my chest that lasts for a couple of hours.

      I get that my asthma isn't your responsibility, but seriously, how DARE you act like you're the ones being put-upon and inconvenienced. You chose to addict yourself to cigarettes, and because of that people like me are often forced to take medicine that we'd normally be able to avoid. You get to choose what to inhale, but you take that choice from everyone else when you use tobacco in public.**

      I swear I'm going to make business cards that say, "I'm so sorry my asthma made you uncomfortable!" and hand them out to every smoker I see on the street that sneers at me because I had the temerity to cover my nose and look away. Gosh, those guys sure do have it rough.

      *While it's a nice fantasy, no, the "wind" doesn't carry enough of the smoke away. Trust me, I wish it did.

      **Despite popular smoker myth, I'm sorry to tell you that car exhaust & other city pollutants aren't even close to being the dangerous asthma trigger that cigarrette smoke is for most people.


      Aug 7, 2013 at 3:17pm


      I think my post may have implied that I am against tobacco. I'm not. I'm saying that if non biodegradable filters don't actually work and just create a hazard then I don't see why they are permitted. (Same as the carcinogenic shit that is added to the tobacco to make it more addictive.)

      I think you should be able to have a smoke wherever it isn't bothering anybody.


      Aug 7, 2013 at 5:11pm

      Certain species of birds have adapted to using cigarette butts to line their nests. They shred the butts with their beaks and weave it through the twigs to insulate the nest. The nicotine in the fibres also act as an insecticide that protects the chicks from parasites. It's OK to throw you butts on the ground to help the bird population.


      Aug 9, 2013 at 1:33pm

      I think it's funny when smokers complain that nanny laws don't respect them as adults, but then claim that their choice to litter their butts around is our fault because we didn't provide them with ash trays. How hard can it be to remember that you're a smoker before you leave your home and carry a small receptacle with you? If you want to be respected as adults, then act accordingly.