Ifs, ands, and butts
Where there is smoke there are butts. Non-smoking laws have rid restaurants, bars, and entertainment venues of cigarette smokers, but they are out there, puffing away and throwing cigarette butts out of car windows, stamping them out on sidewalks, and stubbing them out at the beach.
While the environmental impact of one cigarette is not substantial, when multiplied, the impact can be monumental - especially for the Vineyard and its coastal ecosystems.
According to a study conducted by the Journal of Tobacco Control, smokers toss at least 4.5 trillion cigarette butts worldwide on the ground each year.
Photos by Winthrop Roosevelt
According to a 2005 study of Massachusetts shores conducted by the Ocean Conservancy, a nonprofit environmental organization based in Washington, D.C., found that cigarettes accounted for 37 percent of coastal litter; the next largest source, food wrappers, made up 12 percent.
Cigarette butts contain chemicals that are harmful. Included among the 600 chemicals additives found in cigarettes are benzopyrene, arsenic, lead, formaldehyde, ammonia, and the pesticide benzene. Absorbed into the cigarette filter, these chemicals can leach into the environment. Also, fish and birds are known to ingest cigarette butts, which can cause intestinal blockage.
An informal survey in August of one side of the main streets in Oak Bluffs, Vineyard Haven, and Edgartown revealed that cigarette receptacles were few in number and did little to ameliorate smokers' littering. Despite the fact that storeowners and residents are required to regularly clean the sidewalks, the streets were littered with discarded butts.
A pass on one side of Main Street in Vineyard Haven revealed over 150 cigarette butts littering the sidewalk and only three cigarette disposal units to be found. Circuit Avenue in Oak Bluffs had nearly 350 discarded butts and only two cigarette receptacles, while one sidewalk along Edgartown's Main Street contained over 600 butts and only two receptacles, both located directly outside of The Wharf Restaurant and Pub.
It is possible that smokers do not know that among the 600 chemical additives found in the average cigarettes are benzopyrene, arsenic, lead, formaldehyde, ammonia, and the pesticide benzene. Absorbed into the filter these chemicals can leach into the environment, when not properly disposed.
Still, when asked by a Times reporter, many smokers did not perceive throwing their butts on the ground as an issue. The practice, in their opinion, is insignificant compared to many other problems.
"What else am I going to do with them?" asked John O'Toole of Boston, after throwing a finished cigarette on the ground. "What am I supposed to do, carry it around with me? They need more places to toss them. Sometimes I will make sure to throw them out, but it's kind of just easier to toss them. It's a habit, almost."
Tossing cigarette butts on the ground is illegal under Massachusetts State general law Chapter 270: Section 16, which states that whoever discharges trash, refuse, rubbish, waste, or other material of any kind is subject to a fine and possible imprisonment.
A separate law is on the books concerning disposing of a lit cigarette from a car, a civil infraction that could lead to a suspension of license, a hefty fine, and possible imprisonment.
Police officials are hesitant to react too strongly due in part to the sheer number of infractions and the public's attitude towards over-policing, said Lieutenant Tim Williamson of the Oak Bluffs Police Department.
"I don't think it's highly enforced," said Lieutenant Williamson. "I mean, if I saw a person throw a cigarette butt in front of me while on duty I would certainty ask them to pick it up. The police are already highly burdened as it is. It is what it is. It's just an attitude that people have adopted. If I was to fully enforce these laws people would think I was over-policing because I would be enforcing a littering law over simply a cigarette."
Lieutenant Williamson said the practice of tossing butts on the ground is just inconsiderate. He said many people do not even bother to put their spent cigarettes in the receptacles when they are provided.
Other members of Martha's Vineyard's law enforcement echoed that view.
Besides being eyesores, cigarette butts can also be fire hazards. That was the case in May of 2007 when a carelessly discarded cigarette caused a small fire at The Lampost Bar on Circuit Avenue in Oak Bluffs.
Winthrop Roosevelt was a summer 2008 intern at The Martha's Vineyard Times.