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Tobacco waste removed from county beaches in Earth Day celebration

REGION — The San Diego County Tobacco Control Coalition led a beach cleanup throughout the county last Thursday, April 22, to celebrate the 51st anniversary of Earth Day.

 Coalition members Community Action Service & Advocacy (CASA), Social Advocates for Youth (SAY) San Diego, Vista Community Clinic, and the Surfrider Foundation helped to alleviate the region’s tobacco waste problem by collecting and reporting in state parks and beaches in Carlsbad, Encinitas, Silver Strand, and Old Town. 

Cigarette butts are America’s No. 1 littered item, and more than 4.5 trillion cigarettes are thrown away worldwide each year, according to the TCC. Many of these products end up on San Diego County beaches. These non-biodegradable waste products can have a devastating effect on marine wildlife as they can often lead to water toxicity or even suffocation from animal consumption.

“Tobacco product waste is the most littered item in ocean waters,” Paulene De Mesa, communication specialist at Vista Community Clinic, said at the TCC press conference at Cardiff State Beach.

Cigarette butts are America’s No. 1 littered item. Photo courtesy of the VCC.

The TCC is working to eliminate tobacco product waste in San Diego through beach cleanups and community advocacy. The group’s efforts are in response to state Senate Bill 8, which passed in 2019. SB 8 prohibits smoking on California beaches and state parks with punitive fines in place as enforcement. However, with summer and larger beach crowds approaching, many from the TCC fear that the new bill has not received enough public awareness.

“What’s happened is it implemented and as you can see there’s no signage,” said Dana Stevens, executive director at CASA. “We want to help the state parks and beaches do a better job of putting out signage.”

Tobacco waste products such as cigarette butts, e-cigarettes, vapes, and marijuana products are collected by the TCC as part of a study to determine the effectiveness of SB 8. The data is handled and processed by the Institute for Public Health at San Diego State University so that it can be presented to the state.

Mark O’Connor, a lead volunteer at the Surfrider Foundation, illustrated how a substantial amount of tobacco products flows from inland communities’ waterways into the ocean. Communities like Escondido, Chula Vista, and El Cajon have joined their coastal neighbors in banning tobacco use in outdoor dining. The TCC believes that with less outdoor smoking, comes less ocean waste.

Surfrider is also tackling a related problem at its source with its Rise Above Plastics projects like Tarp Your Load and certifying ocean-friendly restaurants, businesses, and plastic-free grocery delivery. The aim is to quell plastic use and tobacco waste before these harmful products can reach the ocean.

With the completion of its data report, the TCC will determine which areas are at greater risk for this non-biodegradable waste and act accordingly. Through cleanups and public outreach, the coalition is helping to alleviate San Diego County’s tobacco waste problem.