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National Editorial & Columnists

Goal of new law: kick litterers’ butts

Smokers who discard used cigarettes face hefty fines

There are sure to be some among the cigarette-smoking crowd in Illinois that will see a new law as another attempt to control their vice.

What once was almost universally accepted has been hit hard in the past few decades: Smokers have been driven outdoors and away from others, it seems every new tax is dumped onto tobacco products to price them further out of reach, and the idea of the smoke-filled bar is long gone.

These have come into place mostly to discourage people from starting or continuing the habit and to protect those who choose not to take part in the ill effects such as second-hand smoke.

The new law, though, is not designed to discourage or chastise or downgrade smokers. It’s designed to go after those who would spoil the beauty of the surroundings with litter.

It’s been years since anyone tossed a sack of burger wrappers out of the car window without regard or threw their empty energy drink can to the ground when finished. But cigarette butts have always been in a kind of gray area when it came to littering.

Now there’s no question about it. Starting Jan. 1, flicking that butt on the ground could cost up to $1,500 and would be a Class B misdemeanor for the first offense. Although it would seem unbelievable anyone caught once would do it a second time, the punishment gets progressively tougher.

Although it seems a little tough to make third and subsequent convictions a felony with a fine of up to $25,000 and 1- to 3-year prison term, it is hoped someone learns a valuable lesson long before that stage: Use an ashtray or some other appropriate disposal.

What has been done is not targeting smokers: It is simply bringing them under the umbrella of what constitutes littering.

Surely, the time has passed when cigarette butts were viewed as harmless.

First, cigarette butts are made of cellulose acetate tow, a substance that takes decades to degrade. They also contain remnants of dozens of chemicals that in large enough concentrations can alter soil and water or sicken animals that digest them.

Cigarette butts are also the greatest source of litter. Campaigns and get-tough fines seem to have worked against things such as cans, paper bags and Styrofoam containers, but cigarette butts still make up 38 percent of litter on the roads. Surprisingly, the worst spots for tobacco product littering are outside of doctor’s offices and hospitals.

A 2009 study by Keep America Beautiful also found younger smokers were more likely to throw their discarded butts wherever they could find, and that this group was significantly more prone to littering with other items.

The average cigarette butt litterer is 31 feet away from a proper disposal spot, too, which takes away a lot of the argument that doing the right thing is too inconvenient.

It just takes a second to stop and think before flicking, flinging, dropping or stomping that finished cigarette into the ground.

Old habits die hard. This is one that should disappear.

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