Tobacco’s deleterious effects are not confined to smokers, vapers, or second- and third-hand exposure. Tobacco waste devastates our environment as well. Every year over 5 trillion cigarettes are sold globally, with 360 billion cigarettes sold in the United States alone.[1]

In 2012, the cost of smoking in California was $6.5 billion, including nearly $20 million in Alameda County. [2]

Smoking costs Berkeley a lot of money – money that could be spent elsewhere to make our city an even better place to live. We pay increased housing costs for renovating/refinishing after a previous smoking occupant; we pay higher health insurance premiums to cover more medical expenses of smokers; and we live with tobacco waste-polluted streets, parks, and waterways.

In fact, California taxpayers spend over $41 million annually on litter cleanup, [3] and cigarette butts are the number one litter item found on beaches, roadsides, and a major litter item at parks”. [4]

Berkeley’s vision for zero-waste to landfills by the year 2050 cannot be realized without addressing tobacco waste in our community.

In December 2013, the City of Berkeley Tobacco Prevention Program conducted a tobacco litter audit of over 25 residential and commercial sites throughout Berkeley. We collected on average over 100 pieces of tobacco waste (butts, wrappers, etc.) per site. Cigarette filters are made of cellulose acetate, a plastic that is very slow to biodegrade.[1]

Cigarette butts contain arsenic (rat poison), lead (banned from paint and gasoline due to health effects), and nicotine. These toxic chemicals seep into the environment and poison children, pets, and wildlife through accidental ingestion. [5]

Cigarette butts and tobacco products that end up in our bay, rivers, and lakes worsen the water quality and acidify our bay water, damaging our environment [3] and ultimately the health of our wildlife and community. A single cigarette filter in a liter of water can kill half the fish living in it. 1,[6] E- cigarettes pose similar environmental and health concerns. Their plastic cartridges, filled with liquid nicotine, release high concentrations of metals (such as lead) into the environment after disposal. [7]

Berkeley takes pride in its leadership in tobacco control and smoking prevention. The Alameda County Tobacco Control Coalition recently awarded Berkeley City Council with an Outstanding Contribution Award for its leadership on these issues. Council is to be commended for their focus on protecting youth from the devastating health effects of nicotine addiction, and in particular on the role of “vaping” (use of electronic cigarettes) among youth. But there are added benefits to tobacco control, which often go unnoticed.

Not only does this leadership mean improved community health — it means a cleaner, safer, and more sustainable environment and reduced contamination of our land and water.


[2] Healthy Stores for a Healthy Community City of Berkeley

[3] California Department of Transportation. Don’t Trash California. Frequently Asked Questions.




[7] “Research Gaps Related to the Environmental Impact of E-Cigarettes.” Hoshing Chang.

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Janet Berreman MD, MPH is the Health Officer for the City of Berkeley, and Manager of the Public Health Division for the City’s Health, Housing and Community Services Department.
Janet Berreman MD, MPH is the Health Officer for the City of Berkeley, and Manager of the Public Health Division for the City’s Health, Housing and Community Services Department.