Nip It In The Butt

No good deed goes unpunished. When New York City banned smoking inside public establishments and office buildings in 2002, millions of non-smokers (including myself) rejoiced. But an unforeseen consequence of pushing smokers outside has been a surge in discarded cigarette butts on the city's pavement. There are simply not enough cigarette receptacles in New York City, leaving smokers with no other choice but to flick their butts on the ground after their last puff, turning streets and sidewalks into concrete ashtrays.

Cigarette butts are the most littered item in the United States. In 2007, 360 billion cigarettes were consumed, resulting in roughly 135 million pounds of discarded butts. Cigarettes, moreover, are not biodegradable and take roughly 28 years to break down. When discarded butts are carried by the wind or rain into our sewer system, toxic chemicals leak into the water we consume.

A big part of this problem stems from the lack of cigarette receptacles throughout our city. One recent study indicated that 80 percent of smokers would properly dispose of their cigarettes if more receptacles were available, especially outside major transition points like subway entrances and bus shelters. But cigarette urns are lacking and the more cigarette butts are scattered on our streets the more it costs taxpayers to clean those streets. The San Francisco Board of Supervisors, for example, estimates that its city spends $10.7 million in removing butts from its streets, sidewalks, gutters and drainpipes.

Yet there's also reason to be optimistic, as other major cities are starting to pragmatically address the problem of cigarette litter. Officials in Lexington, KY and in Pittsburgh, PA worked with local organizations in procuring receptacles for their communities while educating residents on proper butt disposal. Their efforts have yielded results: Pittsburgh saw a 46 percent decrease in butt litter after installing 81 urns downtown.

There has also been some local success in curbing cigarette litter. Times Square experienced a 63 percent reduction in its cigarette litter after the Times Square Alliance, in conjunction with Keep America Beautiful, installed cigarette receptacles on West 45th and 46th Streets in 2007.

There's simply no reason why we can't replicate Times Square's success throughout the five boroughs. But solving this problem requires the cooperation of city agencies, smokers, and local businesses alike. That is why I am drafting legislation that will help us get more cigarette receptacles on our streets. Importantly, this legislation will aim to place receptacles at locations where they'll have the greatest impact, including locations near city subway entrances, sidewalks, and outside city-owned buildings. Smokers too, could start pitching in by extinguishing their cigarettes in preexisting urns and by using pocket ash trays, which allow smokers to temporarily store butts when they are not near receptacles. Bodegas could start selling these devices and more bars and restaurants should place cigarette receptacles outside their doors. The City of New York could also help by launching a campaign that educates the public about the environmental risks of cigarette litter.

New York City's long battle against smoking has been a clear success. We remain one of the most expensive cities to smoke, with the price tag of cigarettes surpassing $10 dollars, and our Department of Health has been waging an effective public awareness campaign aimed at educating the public on the perils of smoking. Not surprisingly, the smoking rate in our city has plummeted over 20 percent over the past seven years. While our city, under the leadership of Mayor Bloomberg, remains a model in the international war against tobacco consumption, we need to do more to solve the problem of improper cigarette disposal. With some dedication and a small investment in keeping our city clean, cigarette litter is guaranteed to go up in smoke.