This article was first published in The Viking News, October 22, 2003, a bi-weekly publication of the State University of New York, Westchester Community College.
By Taffy Lee Williams
So what's wrong with tossing out a cigarette butt? It makes them just GO AWAY, plain and simple, right? WRONG! Did you know that cigarette filters are made of cellulose acetate, which persists up to ten years in the environment, far longer than it takes to destroy the internal processes of the creatures that ingest them mistakenly as food.
Did you know that when a cigarette butt is tossed out it is more often than not picked up by the next rainstorm or gust of wind and carried by the forces of gravity to the low lying areas which inevitably are streams, rivers, and eventually the ocean, where it will continue to wreak havoc for years to come?
More than 4,800 chemical compounds have been identified in tobacco smoke; 62 of these are known to cause cancer in humans and animals. (Most of the others have not been tested.) Cigarette filters are designed to trap these harmful toxins. But when tossed out into the environment, the chemicals are released into the ground, or into the waters or stomachs of marine mammals, fish, birds or reptiles that ingest them in their never ending quest for food.
The Center for Disease Control has determined that approximately 25% of adult Americans, about 46 million, are smokers. How many of these regularly dispose of their toxic butts in a solid waste receptacle that will prevent the butts' eventual deposition into low-lying waterways? This is a study that hasn't been done.
Smokers would prefer to think that tossing their butts out the window or crushing them underfoot is a harmless action, lulled by ignorance into disbelieving that such a small item could cause any damage at all. However, in clean-up events worldwide, the number one item of litter is cigarette butts. There are more butts thrown into the environment than any other single item. One who smokes a pack a day can potentially litter the earth by the mindless flick of their 20 butts per day, 7,300 items per year. In fact, over 4.5 TRILLION toxic, non-biodegradable cigarette butts are tossed into the environment annually by smokers.
Smokers throw their cigarette butts everywhere. They flick them onto sidewalks. They crush them on lawns. They toss them into rivers and streams, or directly into the ocean while boating. They crush them into the sand while they lay on the beaches. Beach-combing vehicles scour and sift the public's shores for hours each morning picking up thousands of butts daily. People even empty their auto ashtrays on the streets.
In the waterways and oceans of our earth, fish and marine life spend most of their time in search of food. What happens if a turtle swallows a cigarette butt? If the witch's brew of chemical toxins from the filter doesn't kill it within a few hours, the non-biodegradable cellulose filter will as it most likely settles in the stomach, blocking the digestive system. Turtles who ingest the butts will feel "full," because the butts won't dissolve or pass through the tiny stomach. The turtle will stop eating, and actually die of starvation, with a stomach "full" with the bulk of that cigarette butt. But the damage doesn't stop there. Upon the turtle's death and decomposition the butt (or fragments thereof) is released back into the environment to be consumed by the next hungry organism, creating a pernicious cycle of death until the persistent polymer and cellulose acetate materials finally break down, up to a decade later. Victims of cigarette butt-induced death span a broad range of species, from bottom or mud dwelling organisms and fish to sea birds and marine mammals.
Putting aside the fact that discarded cigarette butts cause 7% of residential fires and are the second leading cause of grass fires annually, the cumulative effect of dumping this huge amount of the toxic, non-biodegradable butts into the environment represents another major threat to our already fragile and compromised ecosystems and waterways.
There are many possible explanations. It's convenient. Perhaps you can't expect so much from oxygen-depleted smokers. Maybe it's true that smokers may be too oxygen-depleted to walk three steps to the nearest ash can. It may be that the oxygen-deprived memory-receptors of their brains can't recall the location of their car's ash tray until it's too late. Then again, how can you expect people that care so little for their own bodies to show any concern for the environment, or the non-smoking birds, fish, reptiles and marine mammals that their waste destroys?
Or maybe smokers still lust after that "coolness image," the ambiance that invokes that certain, "je ne sais quoi!" recalled in those smoke-filled rooms in black and white films, where characters of mostly dubious but obviously fascinating origin, glorified by Hollywood's portrayal of them as drop-dead gorgeous leading figures, entice us while taking long drags on their cigarettes, then flick them out into movie star space. The tobacco industry supported and funded the nascent commercial television and movie industry and made sure the image was well embedded into the minds of America's youth. This site perpetuated by the chain-smoking movie-star "bad-boys" continues to haunt us, and still captures thousands of young people into the prison of smoking addiction annually.
Now, it's really none of my business if a person wants to inhale over 4,800 toxic chemicals twenty or more times a day for several decades of their life. It is their god-given right. In all fairness it's not an issue that a smoker is 23 times more likely to die of lung cancer than a non-smoker. Never mind that smokers lose 25 years of their life expectancy, or that second hand smoke causes cancer. Never "flicking" mind that my smoking father died at age 60 from lung cancer, a smoking step-father of emphysema at 61, or that my smoking sister has a blood pressure of 220 over 180. I couldn't stop them and with her and my smoking friends, I've given up trying.
Never mind that kissing a guy who smokes is like kissing an ash tray, and that if someone is a smoker, he's immediately off the "possibility" list. Never mind the disgusting odor that lingers in my hair after sitting next to a smoker or visiting smoking friends, the smell on my clothing that won't go away and makes me nauseous after being breathed on during conversations with smokers.
But why should be FORCED to look at those filthy cigarette butts all over the ground, the streets, on the campus and all over my beautiful world? I am visually assailed with the fruits of smokers' thoughtless flicking at every turn. I annoyingly read the reports of the toxic plastic filters filling the stomachs of endangered sea turtles and birds, or necropsy reports of the many cellulose acetate filters among the contents found in the stomachs of whales. During community clean-up efforts I witness first hand just how many butts accumulate in the low-lying areas of stream beds, river banks, on the ocean's beaches.
A good approach to the problem might include smokers being required to clean up the beaches and streets of cigarette butt litter as a pre-requisite to buying cigarettes. How about a system whereby one brings a bagful of butts they've retrieved from the roads or parking lots and weighs them in? Then they could gain the privilege of buying a pack of cigarettes. I think this is a great idea. The community clean-up volunteers, and the girl scouts and boy scouts would love it, too!
If toxic chemicals are spilled into a municipal water supply, there is a strong case for requiring that perpetrator to pay the costs of the harm caused by that hazard. The merits of facing clean-up costs as a deterrent works so well for chemical manufacturers and other polluters that perhaps it should be applied to individual "flickers" of cigarette butts.
Enforcement of litter laws are being applied to cigarette butts in some areas. In Washington D.C., officials are fed up with the filth that cigarette butt litter causes in the environment. If you are caught tossing out a cigarette you will be slapped with a $1,000 fine and 30 days in jail.
Let's not forget who really benefits from the production of all that butt litter: the incredibly powerful tobacco industry that has been proven to add chemicals to their products to make them more addictive than cocaine.
What responsible action can a smoker take? It's very simple. NEVER throw a cigarette butt into the environment, on the ground, in any body of water, or out of a car window. NEVER put a cigarette butt anywhere except in an ash tray, or a solid waste receptacle after it has been extinguished. Support litter enforcement activities on campus and in your community, including fines. Let's stop this "flicking" disaster now.
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