Toxic Chemicals in Tobacco Waste Products Hurt Our Beaches and Our Health

Jennifer Campbell, District 2 City Council Member, and Thomas Novotny, Thirdhand Smoke Resource Center Policy Advisory Council Member and San Diego State University professor emeritus of public health, urge public health advocates, environmentalists, and communities to work together to get tobacco waste out of San Diego communities. Tobacco waste includes filters from tobacco cigarettes and plastic holders and mouthpieces from disposable electronic cigarettes. Both medical doctors, Campbell and Novotny emphasize that this tobacco waste not only harms the environment, but also is dangerous to human health.

January 26, 2020

By: Jennifer Campbell and Thomas Novotny

Visit any part of San Diego’s beautiful coastline and you’ll see a lot of familiar things — beach towels, surfers and, of course, the waste from tobacco products like cigarette butts. Schools across the state have also seen a rise in e-cigarette waste as more and more young people catch on to a health-hazardous fad of using disposable vaping devices.

As residents (and the representative) of a district that’s home to some of our city’s postcard-perfect beaches, we know firsthand what’s often the most common items left behind. However, the problem of waste from tobacco and vaping products extends well beyond our beaches and something can be done to address it.

There’s no butts about it: these products are terrible for health and the environment. Made up of the poorly degradable cellulose acetate (plastic) filter, cigarette butts take years to break down while leaching out toxic chemicals and contributing to our worsening single-use plastic pollution problem. Whether it’s in the sand, in our storm drains, or on our sidewalks, tobacco product wastes are the most collected items at every beach and community cleanup. Over the last 10 years, Surfrider Foundation has collected more than 2 million butts at monthly cleanups alone.

We’ve led the way on reducing our single-use pollution, yet there’s a big blind spot when it comes to plastic-filtered cigarette butts. Californians have taken steps to try and turn things around, with limited success. Restrictions on smoking on the beach and in parks have helped, but have not meaningfully changed the butt count. The California litter ordinance calls for fines of up to $1,000 plus community service for each littering event, but this law is difficult to enforce for cigarette butt dumping. More action must be taken.

Beyond the environmental impacts, as physicians we are totally aware of and committed to reducing the health consequences of smoking. It shortens so many lives (more than 40,000 a year in California alone), costs enormous resources for health care (about $487 per California resident), and creates terrible heartache for families who lose loved ones due to smoking. We are always looking for new ways to reduce this preventable disease since we know that simply advising smokers to quit is just not enough.

As new regulations on vaping and tobacco are being developed to address the immediate public health crisis of vaping and its linkage to illnesses and deaths, there is still a gap in the effort to mitigate the environmental damage brought on by waste.

So, what can be done about this? Recently, the California Senate passed a bold measure to change how tobacco products are sold in California: Senate Bill 424. This bill would ban the sale of filtered cigarettes, disposable plastic holders and mouthpieces, and single-use electronic cigarettes. It also calls for a take-back regimen for e-cigarette parts that cannot be recycled (much like the California Paintcare Program).

That’s why the District 2 City Council office is asking our state legislative liaisons to support SB 424 as part of the San Diego’s state platform for 2020.

It is unclear whether SB 424 will emerge unscathed from the state Assembly’s Government Organizations Committee. If the bill simply burns out, San Diego, along with other California communities, should take independent and completely legitimate local action to ban the sale of filtered cigarettes and disposable vaping products.  The Federal law regulating tobacco products expressly gives local governments the power to regulate the sale of tobacco products.

Filters, like flavors, make it easier to smoke and fraudulently suggest to smokers that they are “doing something” to protect themselves from the horrible diseases attributable to smoking. In fact, adoption of filters over the last 60 years or so has been associated with an increase in the risks for some types of lung cancer. For all these reasons, filters should be considered a health risk and therefore eliminated through local regulation of tobacco product sales.

Cities and counties can and have already banned sales of flavored tobacco products, including San Diego County. Beverly Hills has actually banned the sale of any tobacco products altogether. San Francisco levied a litter fee on all cigarette packs sold in that city. Municipalities are stepping up to make a difference and San Diego can join in.

There is also the ticking clock of the State Water Board’s trash amendment. By 2030, California will require that communities prevent trash greater than 5 millimeters in size from flowing through storm drains, and that includes cigarette butts. Removing them will help San Diego reach that objective even sooner.

While we can expect push back from the tobacco industry, San Diego can do something truly novel to remove cigarette waste from our beaches and our neighborhoods while striving to reach the state goal of a tobacco-free society by the year 2035. To get to that goal, this effort requires new and strategic collaborations among environmentalists, public health advocates, and communities.

If California won’t act then San Diego should. It can start here, where we treasure our beaches, our communities, and the health of our people.

Note: Content was edited for style and length

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