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CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. Despite a ban on smoking in workplaces, public buildings, and even restaurants, the state of Maine has one of the highest proportions of smokers in the United States. And after that last drag, too many of those cigarettes are simply flicked away. Cigarette butts account for much of the litter along Maine's beaches, parks, sidewalks, and parking lots. But that could all change soon if the nation's first-ever cigarette butt bill passes the state legislature. From the state capital Augusta, Maine Public Radio's Susan Chisholm reports.
CHISHOLM: At first some Maine lawmakers thought it was a joke, and Representative Joe Brooks has taken a lot of ribbing. But he's pushing ahead with legislation to put cigarette butts right up there with bottles and cans and make them redeemable items. Brooks says creating an incentive for smokers to properly dispose of their butts makes sense.
BROOKS: Think about the millions of people in this country who smoke and flick them out the windows. And what do they do? They cause fires.
CHISHOLM: They also turn public spaces into ashtrays. Cigarette filters are made of cellulose acetate, a plastic that degrades slowly in the environment. That's why Brooks, a former two-pack-a-day smoker, wants the state to pay five cents for each cigarette butt returned to bottle redemption centers for later disposal at local landfills.
BROOKS: We have limited the places where people who smoke can smoke. And in almost every case it's outside. I mean, let's clean up the environment.
CHISHOLM: Brooks calculates that if only half the state's 2.2 billion butts were returned, Maine could reap about $50 million annually from unclaimed deposits. Some business owners agree the bill makes economic sense. Peter Daigle is a partner in a chain of hotels and motels in Maine and New Hampshire. He says it costs his company about $4,000 a year to pick up cigarette butts. Daigle himself spends part of each day trolling for trash.
DAIGLE: See, I was here, I got here about two-thirty, three o'clock, and there were no butts out here today.
CHISHOLM: So now you're finding some already where you looked?
DAIGLE: Now we're finding some, right.
CHISHOLM: You don't have any qualms about picking them up and touching them?
DAIGLE: No, I've been doing it so long that if I had to go to the car and get a pair of rubber gloves, I'd be running to the car more than I'd be picking up cigarette butts. You've got to go wash your hands after you do this.
CHISHOLM: But critics of the bill warn of possible health hazards associated with handling smelly, dirty cigarette butts. The director of the Maine Bureau of Health calls them microbial havens. And some lawmakers cringe at the idea of Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts scouring the beaches and streets collecting butts to boost the troop's coffers. Meanwhile, smokers like Chris Dampier question proponents' true motives.
DAMPIER: See, I'm just not all into that save the environment and all that stuff. The Earth will take care of itself. It always has and it always will, so there's just a big lobby in the state that doesn't want people to smoke. And I just, I'm against that stuff.
CHISHOLM: There's also a strong lobby opposing the bill. To pay for the redemption program, the cost of each pack of cigarettes sold in Maine would rise by a dollar. Smokers could get that dollar back if they turn in their butts. But some retailers fear the price hike will spur a black market in cheaper, out-of-state cigarettes. Lyanne Cochi represents the New England Convenience Store Association, which counts tobacco companies in its membership. At a hearing before the legislature's Business and Economic Development Committee, she told members the bill could hurt retail sales overall.
COCHI: It's a proven economic theory, generally, as the price of an item rises consumption decreases. When a customer comes in for a pack of cigarettes, they often purchase other items. These sales would be lost if the customer did not come in to purchase those original tobacco sales.
CHISHOLM: The tobacco industry opposes the bill because of its labeling requirement. Manufacturers would have to stamp each cigarette they sell in Maine with an identifying symbol, the same way bottles and cans are marked for return. Severin Belliveau, who represents a wholesale tobacco distributor in Maine, says labeling would give his client nightmares. That prompted this question from committee co-chair Kevin Shorey.
SHOREY: I'm hearing this and I'm hearing there's definitely a problem here. You know, there's a problem here in regard to the littering, et cetera. You said there are some other ways we can alleviate this. Would you share those with us?
BELLIVEAU: Well, someone is suggesting about the enforcement of the litter statutes. People think that law enforcement will deal with it. They won't deal with this. And I don't think - I don't agree that the problem exists to the extent that's been suggested.
CHISHOLM: But the bill's sponsor, Representative Joe Brooks, doubts police will be eager or able to crack down on litterbug smokers. He points out that many of the same arguments were made 20 years ago when Maine paved the way as the nation's first state to pass the highly-successful returnable bottle bill.
BROOKS: Why can't we have a returnable butt bill? Or a returnable cigarette bill just like we have a returnable bottle bill? And we, just like everybody else who is first greeted by the subject, chuckles a little bit. And we think about it, gee whiz, wouldn't it be funny if you did that, and guffaw, guffaw. But then the more you think about it and the more you put some serious thought to it, the more it becomes a logical conclusion to what do we do with all those butts out there?
CHISHOLM: A legislative committee will take up the first in the nation butt bill early next month. For Living on Earth, I'm Susan Chisholm in Augusta, Maine.