Walk along any beach or through any park and chances are they’ll be there by the dozens the tan, discarded remains of a cigarette.

Cigarettes aren’t healthy for people. But when the butts, also known as filters, are thrown on the ground, they too are harmful to humans, wildlife and the environment. Studies show that their non biodegradable nature and toxic chemical makeup can contaminate waterways, poison fish and birds, and be a health danger to children who try to eat them.

A California legislator is trying to put an end to the pollution with a law that, if passed, could change the way cigarettes have tasted and looked for six decades.

Under the proposed regulation, introduced this month by Assemblyman Mark Stone, D Monterey Bay, the state would ban all cigarettes with filters designed to be discarded after a single use. A person or store caught selling or giving them away would be fined $500 per violation.

California has laws to punish litterers, but one of them is especially tough on those who toss cigarettes out their car windows. Convicted first time offenders can be ordered to pay about $500 and complete eight hours of community service. But Stone said enforcement is lacking, as evidenced by all the filters that still pervade sidewalks and streets.

“There’s been a huge effort to try and stop that littering to no avail, absolutely no avail,” Stone said.

Cigarette butts are an expensive problem for cities and counties, Stone said. San Francisco alone estimates that it spends $6 million a year cleaning them up.

Every year, conservationists estimate, 3 billion cigarette butts are littered in the Bay Area. They make up about 40 percent of all litter collected during annual Coastal Clean up Days in California, and worldwide, they account for 845,000 tons of litter per year.

Stone’s law wouldn’t outlaw cigarettes per se. But if his proposal becomes law, cigarettes would have to be sold in California without filters, leaving smokers the option of buying reusable filters. “The filter’s not really a necessary piece to the cigarette at all,” Stone said.

Filters introduced

But nearly all cigarettes have been made with filters since the 1950s, when scientists started finding evidence that smokers tended to develop lung cancer and other serious diseases. Filters were thought to lower the tar and nicotine content of cigarette smoke, making them a healthier addition to the smoking experience.

It hasn’t quite worked out that way. Smokers tend to compensate for the diluted smoke by puffing deeper and more frequently. Therefore they tend to breathe in virtually the same amount of tar and nicotine as those who smoke non filtered cigarettes, research shows.

A study, published last January in the New England Journal of Medicine, suggested that filters and other design changes in cigarettes haven’t reduced lung cancer, but rather changed the types of lung cancers that have become more common since the 1970s. For example, cancers in the lungs’ central airways of male smokers have decreased, the researchers said, but cancers in the outer areas of the lungs have increased.

“That to me indicates that, for the overall impact on lung cancer, filters haven’t done anybody any good,” said Dr. Thomas Novotny, a professor of public health at San Diego State University and founder of the Cigarette Butt Pollution Project, a coalition of health and environmental advocates.

Danger to children

Cigarette butts by themselves can present a danger to children who spend a lot of time on the ground and are apt to put discarded cigarettes in their mouths, Novotny and a team of researchers discovered in a 2011 study.

From 2006 to 2008, the American Association of Poison Control Centers reported nearly 14,000 medical problems caused by tobacco products among children, and 90 percent were due to the ingestion of cigarettes or cigarette butts. The vast majority of cases were non toxic, however, and the children were not hospitalized.

In another study, Novotny and his colleagues discovered that chemicals from just one cigarette filter were capable of killing fish living, for their study’s sake, in a 1 liter bucket of water.

In buckets containing saltwater fish, the scientists submerged low concentrations of three types of butts smoked filtered cigarettes with and without tobacco, as well as clean un smoked filtered cigarettes in buckets for 24 hours. They also did the experiment using freshwater fish. In all cases, about half the fish were killed.

Cigarettes contain at least 4,000 chemicals, including 50 carcinogens, and the butts have been shown to leach out heavy metals and nicotine in water. In addition, nearly all filters are made of cellulose acetate, a non biodegradable plastic that ensures they stick around a long time.

“It’s just a lot of chemicals that do not belong in our waterways and do not belong in the bay,” said Allison Chan, a manager for the environmental group Save the Bay. The organization supports Stone’s legislation and is also trying to persuade cities to restrict outdoor smoking. So far, El Cerrito and Foster City are considering such policies, Chan said.

Philip Morris’ view

Not everyone is a fan of Stone’s legislation. Philip Morris USA, the nation’s leading cigarette manufacturer, said the proposal is at odds with a 2009 federal law that gave the U.S. Food and Drug Administration the sole authority to set standards for the manufacturing, distribution and marketing of tobacco products.

“Simply put, by banning filters, the bill is attempting to change a significant component of a tobacco product that Congress has determined only the FDA has the authority to regulate,” said David Sutton, a spokesman for the company.

But Stone said his legislation is valid because, regardless of the federal law limiting state and local authority, states can restrict the sale of certain tobacco products. They have the authority, for example, to outlaw smokeless tobacco or cigarettes altogether, according to an analysis by the Tobacco Control Legal Consortium.

Sutton said Philip Morris has worked to curb littering by funding cigarette litter prevention programs with the nonprofit Keep America Beautiful. Started in 2002, more than 1,200 communities now have the program, which includes conducting education campaigns and installing ash receptacles.

According to measurements taken by Keep America Beautiful, more than 100 communities that started programs in 2011 achieved an average reduction of cigarette butt litter of 48 percent that year.

Jim Zeidan doesn’t think Stone’s proposal will go over well with smokers. He’s the manager of the California Tobacco Center, a retail store that sells everything from cigars to e cigarettes in San Francisco’s Nob Hill neighborhood. He himself is a smoker.

Without a filter, cigarettes taste heavy and harsh, he said. “If it’s going to be non filtered, I don’t know if I could smoke,” he said.

At the same time, Zeidan is reminded that cigarette litter is a problem every morning, when he sweeps filters out of the doorway of his store.

He admitted, “It’s tough either way.”

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