Cigarette Butts and Other Tobacco Product Waste Costs Taxpayers Millions of Dollars

Researchers from San Diego State University and Avalon Economics estimate handling tobacco waste products from cigarette butts to e-cigarette cartridges could cost taxpayers as much as $90,000,000 a year.

July 25, 2020

By: Lucia Alvarez-Malo Flores

Cigarette butts are the single most common form of litter in the world. Just like thirdhand smoke, cigarette butts leave behind a toxic legacy in the environment for years after being discarded. Managing this waste is expensive and paid for by taxpayers and communities.

Anyone who spends time on the beach has noticed cigarette butts lying around or washed up with the tide. Mixed in with shells and seaweed, they are an all too common sight. Tobacco product waste is mostly cigarette butts, but it also includes things like discarded e-cigarettes, liquid cartridges, packaging, and snuff pouches. Large amounts of tobacco product waste also accumulate on our streets, sidewalks, parks, school grounds, and other public places. It also flows into storm water drains, waste treatment plants, and solid waste collection facilities. Cities and towns invest significant resources to clean up and manage this waste. But how much does it actually cost?  

Dr. Thomas Novotny of San Diego State University has been researching tobacco product waste for more than ten years. Recently he and Dr. John Schneider of Avalon Economics led a team of researchers to try to answer the question: How much does tobacco product waste cleanup cost communities and taxpayers? The researchers used an econometric model to estimate these costs for large U.S. cities.

Dr. Novotny explains, “Estimating the costs of cleanup and removal of tobacco product waste can help inform policy makers and the public about the economic burden to local communities. This information can help policy makers use an economic argument for better regulatory policies, changes in tobacco product sales, and even possible cost recovery litigation against the tobacco industry.”

In this study, the researchers developed new methods to estimate the direct and indirect costs of tobacco product waste in the 30 largest cities across the U.S., including Los Angeles, San Francisco, and San Diego in California. They estimated the total cost for each city based on the size of the population, the smoking rate, and the cost per person spent on overall litter clean-up and removal.

Previously, Dr. Schneider had estimated cleanup costs in San Francisco to be more than 20 cents for each pack of cigarettes sold in that city. This estimate encouraged San Francisco’s City Council to levy a litter fee on cigarettes sold there. The current litter fee is 75 cents per pack.

For the 30 largest U.S. cities, the researchers estimated the annual cost of tobacco product waste cleanup ranged from $4 million for Portland and Las Vegas (the two smallest cities) to $80 million for New York City (the largest city), with a total cost of $264.5 million per year for all 30 cities combined. These costs are generally proportional to population size, but the prevalence of smoking in those cities also contributes to different costs—cities with fewer smokers have lower costs.

Dr. Novotny points out that these costs are largely borne by taxpayers. Scientists refer to such costs as “negative economic externalities…that is, costs of tobacco use that are paid for by people other than the tobacco product’s producer or the product user.” While this study has put a price tag on the clean-up cost of tobacco product waste to cities, other important questions remain.  How can we reduce tobacco product waste by changing smoking behavior? How can cities recover the costs for tobacco product waste cleanup? How can we prevent tobacco product waste from spoiling the environment and our quality of life?

You can read more about tobacco product waste at the Cigarette Butt Pollution Project (www.cigwaste.org).


Note: Content was edited for style and length.

Click here to read the research study.

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