Cigarette butts represent the most common type of litter found along Maui’s coastlines. Pacific Whale Foundation and other environmental organizations supported a bill passed by Maui County in April 2014 that prohibits the use of tobacco products, including cigarette smoking, in designated county areas. In June 2015, the state of Hawaii passed a similar tobacco-free policy for state beaches and parks.
In 2016, Pacific Whale Foundation was awarded a grant from NOAA’s Marine Debris Program to develop a holistic public awareness campaign that will educate the community on marine debris issues, specifically with respect to tobacco-related litter on Maui beaches. Our goal is to impact public attitudes and personal behaviors in measurable ways that limit the increase of marine debris in the world’s oceans.
What is the big deal – why does Pacific Whale Foundation support tobacco-free beaches?
Cigarette butts are the single most littered item on beaches – both in Maui County as well as around the world. Cigarette butts have been dubbed “the gateway trash” – beaches littered with a high volume of cigarette butts are more likely to have a higher amount of other types of litter than beaches with fewer cigarette butts. By specifically addressing the issue of cigarette butt litter, we are therefore inadvertently addressing the larger issue of trash on our beaches. We believe that cleaner beaches will beget cleaner beaches, and that tackling cigarette butts is major first step.
But aren’t cigarette butts mainly paper? Don’t they just break down in the environment?
After WWII, when cigarette manufacturing became largely automated, the industry switched from making filters out of biodegradable materials, like cotton and wool, to synthetic materials that were not biodegradable. Today, 95% of cigarette filters are made from the plastic known as cellulose acetate, and do not biodegrade when left on beaches or in the ocean. Cigarette butts can persist in the environment for many years.
How do cigarette butts harm wildlife?
Cigarette butts contain hundreds of chemicals that leach into the sand as well as into ocean water, poisoning marine life and creating unhealthy environments for humans. Cigarette filters have been found in the stomachs of fish, birds, whales and other marine creatures that mistake them for food.
But aren’t there already laws that address littering? Do we really need more laws?
Laws that address littering require that you catch someone in the actual act of littering, which is next to impossible. A law that specifically prohibits the use of tobacco products on beaches is much easier to enforce and targets the actual act that leads to cigarette butt litter in the first place. By removing the act of smoking from the beach, you stop cigarette butt litter at the source.
Are there other places with smokefree beach laws?
Absolutely! As of January 2, 2014, there are 185 municipalities in the U.S. that have instituted smokefree beach laws. For example, all beaches in Los Angeles and Santa Barbara County, as well as county beaches in San Diego County, are smokefree. In Southern California alone, over 100 miles of coastline prohibit smoking. Coastal cities like Seattle and New York City have also recently passed smokefree laws, as well as the entire Commonwealth of Puerto Rico. In Hawai’i, the Big Island passed a smokefree beaches law in 2008, and the island of O’ahu’s smokefree beaches bill went into effect on January 1, 2014.
Do smokefree beach laws really decrease the amount of littered cigarette butts?
Studies estimate that smokefree beach laws lead to a 45% decrease in cigarette butt litter. Community-based monitoring efforts, as detailed in The Daily Ocean and It Starts With Me blogs support this claim by documenting the number of butts on beaches before and after legistlation is implemented. In each case, it is clear that smokefree beaches have fewer littered cigarette butts than beaches that allow smoking.
How do you enforce smokefree beach laws?
While there are warnings and fines for violators of smokefree beach laws, the real key is community enforcement. Do you remember when it was common for people to smoke in restaurants, airplanes and elevators? That social norm quickly changed once smokefree laws took effect, and now people are used to no smoking rules, and even expect for these places to be smokefree. Smokefree beaches act the same way – smokefree becomes normal at these beaches, so community members are likely to inform smokers that smoking is not allowed. A key part to the success of these laws is public education and outreach. Once smokefree laws take effect, municipalities and outreach organizations must make a strong effort to educate and inform the public.
Some people argue that smoking is their personal right, especially outdoors – is this true?
There is no constitutional right to smoke and smoking is not a specially protected liberty right. Proponents of smokers’ rights often claim that: smoking falls within the fundamental right to privacy; and/or laws regulating smoking discriminate against smokers as a particular group and thus violate equal rights laws. Neither of these claims have been upheld by courts (for a more indepth explanation, visit A Legal Right To Smoke?). Also consider the converse: don’t nonsmokers have a right to clean air and healthy environments? An estimated 20% of Maui County residents smoke, meaning that the majority of our island community does not smoke and is negatively impacted by the actions of smokers.