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The University of Otago Department of Public Health’s scientific war on smokers continues with new research undertaken in Wellington showing 77 per cent of smokers having a cigarette in public places throw their butts on the ground.

It may seem a trivial matter but consider this – around 5.6 trillion cigarettes are smoked anually, resulting in cigarette butt wastage comprising 2.8 billion litres by volume. Those butts end up on the ground, then in drains, then in the sea where they are a risk to marine life.

The only previous study of this kind studied 530 smokers in the US and found a littering rate of 65%. The New Zealand study, published last week in the British Medical Journal, took place over several weeks and had scientists doing their best Jason Bourne impressions as they attempted to discretely tail 219 smokers as they wandered around central Wellington…

The observer walked on one side of the pavement until the first active smoker was observed walking either in front of them or past them. At that point the smoker was discreetly followed (maintaining a minimum distance of at least 5m) and continuously observed until the point of butt discarding (even if they left the designated circuit streets). To minimise the chance of a smoker realising that they were being observed, the observer only attended to those people smoking who were walking and could not easily see the observer (ie, not standing/sitting or waiting at a bus stop). If a walking smoker did suddenly stop (eg, to use an ATM), the observer discreetly stopped some distance away and became preoccupied with some typical activity.

Little did I know that the scientists were prowling Manners St. where the Science Media Centre is based, tapping away on an iPod Touch every time a smoker flicked a butt away. But I can relate to the problem they are trying to explore. I regularly see smokers standing outside office blocks along Manners St. finishing up their smoko break by flicking their butts into the bus lane where they continue to smolder until crushed by the wheels of a big yellow bus.

The results

Wellington central – ground zero for butt flickers

Of the 219 walking smokers observed over 40 hours on consecutive Fridays and Saturdays in September 2011:

- 77% littered.

- 73,5% didn’t extinguish their cigarettes.

-  3.7% dropped them unextinguished into bins.

- 3.7% dropped them directly into storm water drains.

that’s despite the fact that there is a bin every 24 metres on the streets included in the study and 23 of those bins has cigarette butt receptacles built into them.

Some other interesting tidbits from the study…

- Smokers were more likely to litter at night than during lunchtime.

- Roll your own tobacco smokers were more likely to litter than those smoking tailored cigarettes

- More smokers littered on Saturdays than on Fridays.

I don’t delight in dishing hate on smokers. But I think smoking is a habit that has no redeeming features and I particularly dislike seeing young people smoking because they’ll later regret every puff.

But if you are going to smoke, have the decency to clean up after yourself. Don’t throw butts on the ground or in drains and if you are going to use a bin, make sure you put it out before you throw it in there, so as to avoid a bin fire.

Otago’s public health researchers have been active on tobacco control and most recently grabbed headlines when they produced research to show smokers pollute the air, particularly at bus stops.

According to the research, only 129 fines for littering were issued in Wellington in 2008, the latest period that data was available for. The council should sub-contract me, I’d catch at least one smoker a day on Manner’s St outside my office door.

But what do the researchers suggest? Issuing more fines won’t cut it, they argue.

“…in a society with a national smokefree goal (which is 2025 for New Zealand12), it would probably be more logical and cost effective to just make all major downtown city streets smokefree”.

I can’t say I’d be offended by that. Would you?

The abstract

Objectives: The objectives of the present work were to (a) develop a relatively simple single-observer method for data collection on cigarette butt discarding; and (b) quantify cigarette butt discarding behaviour in city streets.

Methods: A method was developed, piloted and refined (with interobserver assessment). Cigarette butt discarding was systematically observed by a single data collector while walking a continuous circuit of busy downtown streets in a capital city (Wellington, New Zealand).

Results: The final method appeared feasible in this setting and seemed efficient (at 5.5 discarding events observed per hour). A clear majority (76.7%; 95% CI 70.8 to 82.0%) of the 219 smokers observed littered their cigarette butts. Butt littering was more common for those who did not extinguish their cigarette (94.4% vs 4.5%, p1⁄40.003). Butt littering was more common in the evening versus lunchtime periods of observation (85.8% vs 68.1%, p1⁄40.002, logistic regression analysis). Overall, most smokers (73.5%) did not extinguish their butts and some placed lit butts in bins (constituting a risk of bin fires). The context for this littering was a high density of rubbish bins on this circuit with a mean of 3.5 bins being in view and with a bin every 24 m on average. Conclusions Butt littering behaviour appears to be the norm among smokers in this urban setting, even though rubbish bins were ubiquitous. One solution is stronger enforcement of littering laws. Nevertheless, in a society with a national smokefree goal (by year 2025 for New Zealand), it would probably be more logical and cost effective to move to smokefree policies for major city streets, which are used in a number of jurisdictions internationally.

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