Think twice be­fore flick­ing that next butt

Cam­paign shows that cig­a­rettes are the most lit­tered item in the world

Richmond Hill Post - - Daily Planet -

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 per cent, or 4.9 mil­lion peo­ple, with only about 13.8 per cent 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 smok­ingre­lated ill­ness,” reads the 2013 re­port, ti­tled “Tobacco Use in Canada: Pat­terns and Trends.”

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. And 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 in wa­ter ev­ery year. The U.S. spends about $11 bil­lion a year on lit­ter cleanup, and 32 per cent 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 cleanups 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.

DAVID SUZUKI David Suzuki is host of CBC’s The Na­ture of Things and au­thor of more than 30 books on ecol­ogy.

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