Those nasty cigarette butts don’t just trash up the beach; they also constitute the world’s biggest source of ocean trash, according to several environmental and anti-smoking groups.
The Cigarette Butt Pollution Project warns that “Cigarette butt waste damages habitat, landscapes and ecosystems; ignites destructive, deadly fires; poisons wildlife and children; consumes tax dollars for cleanup and disposal.” A butt is made from cellulose acetate, a form of plastic that never biodegrades, and it can do the same kind of damage to ocean life — and land life — as plastic straws and plastic bags.
So we’re delighted that the Charleston chapter of the Surfrider Foundation is working to encourage smokers to stop flicking and smashing cigarette butts into the sand. As The Post and Courier’s Shamira McCray reports, the nonprofit group, which is dedicated to the protection of oceans and beaches, launched a “Hold On to Your Butt” campaign at Folly Beach last week. The campaign features a mural painted by local artists, a short film, educational signs, portable ashtrays that businesses can distribute to their patrons and 20 cigarette butt receptacles placed near businesses and the beach’s main access points.
Yet for all the environmental damage caused by a beach full of cigarette butts, not to mention the potential for making our beaches seem less alluring to tourists, those butts are merely the residue of a bigger problem. Even if the new campaign were 100% effective — even if we persuaded all the smokers on the beach to dispose properly of their cigarettes — we’d still have smokers on the beach.
You’ve probably been there: You’re walking along the beach, and suddenly you find yourself enveloped in a cloud of smoke as you pass by a clutch of smokers. Or worse, you’re building sand castles with your children, or lounging on a chaise, and a smoker sits down just upwind from you.
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It’s not just annoying. The toxic cloud of second-hand smoke is carcinogenic. In much larger doses than you’re likely to ingest walking past a smoker, to be sure, but still … death by a thousand breaths.
We wouldn’t have to worry about cigarette butts on the beach if people weren’t smoking on the beach. Actually, we wouldn’t have to worry about cigarette butts anywhere if people weren’t smoking, period, and getting to that place needs to be our goal, through programs to help people stop smoking — and, better still, to deter them from starting in the first place.
But nicotine is one of the most addictive drugs on the planet, so while we work on that, we should concentrate on outlawing smoking on the beach. The Isle of Palms and Sullivan’s Island both have banned smoking on the beach; Folly Beach should join them, as should other beach communities that aren’t already smoke-free.
Wide-open spaces do tend to disperse cigarette smoke, but just like the coronavirus, it can still sicken us, particularly on crowded beaches. So inland communities that haven’t already done so — and, thankfully, more and more have — should extend their indoor smoking bans to outdoor public spaces. Those communities that don’t have even indoor smoking bans should adopt them, if only to protect employees from smoking the same way our laws protect them from other workplace hazards.
But second-hand smoke knows no jurisdiction, so what we really need is for the Legislature to toughen up South Carolina’s anemic smoking laws. And again like COVID-19, the need is akin to the need for the governor to order a statewide mask mandate, only this one will be around long after we’ve packed away our masks.