No More Piles of Cigarette Butts

Smoking bans at parks and on beaches may reduce potential hazards of discarded butts

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD

(RxWiki News) Many public parks and beaches no longer permit smoking. Reducing cigarette butt litter might be the greatest unexpected benefit of these smoking bans.

A recent study looked at public smoking bans in parks and on beaches to see whether the reasoning behind the bans was justified.

The results showed that without smoking bans, cigarette butt litter grew.

"Quit smoking today."

Ronald Bayer, PhD, professor of Sociomedical Sciences at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health in New York City, led this study into outdoor smoking bans at public parks and beaches.

In the 1970s, parts of America began banning smoking in certain public places. Between 1993 and 2011, smoking had been banned in 843 public parks and on 150 beaches in the US, according to the study authors.

Using data from the American Nonsmokers’ Rights Foundation, the researchers set out to determine whether the reasoning behind smoking bans could be backed up with results.

The researchers found that across efforts to ban public smoking in parks and on beaches, three broad themes emerged.

First, smoking on beaches and in parks posed a secondhand smoke health hazard to nonsmokers, especially to children.

Second, cigarette butts were toxic if accidentally consumed by humans or animals and created an unacceptable amount of litter.

And third, public smoking by adults provided a poor model for the future behavior of children and teens, which could promote the habit of smoking when those young people get older.

Pollution from secondhand smoke exposure in enclosed spaces has been well documented. But little scientific evidence exists on the potential health hazards of secondhand smoke exposure outdoors, the authors noted.

Before public smoking bans in New Jersey, a local administrator reported raking piles of cigarette butts from the bay on a daily basis. California reported removing 5.5 million cigarette butts littered across beaches in the late 1980s.

Citizens of Maine pushed for public smoking bans on the basis that they couldn’t let their kids crawl on the beach because they could and would put cigarette butts in their mouths.

The researchers noted that the environmental impact of cigarette butt littering is still unknown. However, the reasoning that banning smoking in public places would reduce cigarette butt litter was valid.

The researchers were unable to find any evidence that public smoking bans have resulted in fewer teens picking up smoking. As smoking bans in public outdoor areas have been relatively recent, there is not yet enough evidence for researchers to draw clear conclusions on the impact of smoking bans on the risk of starting smoking.

The landscape of smoking reform has recently been centered on "denormalizing" smoking. The theory is that if smoking becomes less desirable, less accessible and less socially acceptable, then fewer people will smoke. However, denormalizing efforts could run the risk of humiliating and stigmatizing smokers.

In 2008, a Gallup poll reported that only 40 percent of respondents supported banning smoking in all public places. By 2011, the same poll reported 59 percent support.

The researchers concluded that there wasn't enough scientific evidence to promote public smoking bans on the basis of secondhand smoke exposure and setting a poor example for children.

However, the researchers did find that enough evidence existed to support public smoking bans in parks and on beaches due to the excessive cigarette butt litter.

This study was published in July in Health Affairs.

The American Legacy Foundation provided financial support and the American Nonsmokers’ Rights Foundation provided data for this project. The authors declared no conflicts of interest.

Reviewed by: 
Review Date: 
July 10, 2013
Last Updated:
July 30, 2013