The French don't mind if you smoke, but, s'il vous plaît, do not throw your cigarette butts on the charmingly cobblestoned streets of Montmartre.

The city of Paris is installing thousands of ashtrays on the streets, hoping to clean up what one official called a carpet of cigarette butts that has appeared in the five years since smoking was banned inside bars and cafes. But according to studies by UC researchers, neither outdoor ashtrays nor recycling programs will solve the problem of cigarette butts, which contain toxic chemicals and stack up at the rate of 5.6 trillion a year.

What's needed is an outright ban on filtered cigarettes, said Richard Barnes, a policy researcher at the UCSF Center for Tobacco Control Research and Education.

Double whammy: toxic and polluting

"The problem is not just the toxicity but the sheer volume of the things. It's not like a McDonald's wrapper you see blowing down the street," Barnes said.

If a ban on filtered cigarettes sounds radical, consider this: Filters don't make cigarettes less toxic and, in fact, may make them more dangerous. Filters concentrate cigarette toxins and contain several of their own. (See accompanying story.) They're made of plastic, which isn't biodegradable; and these toxic pellets travel long distances, including along waterways, joining the gyre of floating plastic in the ocean.

Even the cigarette industry tacitly acknowledges that cigarette butts are a problem. In November 2012, New Mexico-based Santa Fe Natural Tobacco Co. the maker of American Spirit cigarettes and a subsidiary of R.J. Reynolds, announced a national recycling program to turn cigarette butts into pellets to make items such as plastic shipping pallets, railroad ties and park benches. 

But solutions offered by cigarette manufacturers tend to be PR ploys, not real answers, say Barnes and other researchers. Funding beach cleanups by groups like the Ocean Conservancy instills an image of cigarette butts as simple litter rather than toxic waste. Funding from the cigarette industry also puts pressure on environmental groups to take it easy on cigarette manufacturers, whose product is linked to a number of environmental concerns, including not only cigarette butt waste, but also large-scale deforestation in tobacco-producing countries like Brazil and Malawi.

Flawed from the start

"We can focus on ineffective measures that look good or we can recognize the fact that the filters are flawed to begin with," said Dr. Elizabeth A. Smith, a historian and associate adjunct professor at UCSF's School of Nursing.

"Research shows that industry made a conscious decision. Their choice was to have a real filter that actually did something to reduce nicotine or they could have fake filters," said Smith, who has conducted studies on the tobacco industry that were funded by UC's Tobacco-Related Disease Research Program (TRDRP). "They chose filters that didn't work. So we can get rid of filters, or we can put the onus on the industry to produce real filters."

Barnes and other researchers with TRDRP have determined that even unsmoked cigarette filters are toxic, according to U.S. Environmental Protection Agency standards. The next step is determining whether discarded cigarette butts affect the food chain. 

"What we're trying to do is establish enough of a scientific basis so that the California EPA division of toxic waste management can issue some regulations," said Barnes. 

Thomas Novotny, TRDRP-supported principal investigator, global health expert and medical epidemiologist at San Diego State University, said it's not too early to push for a ban on filtered cigarettes.

Using the precautionary principle — which states that in the absence of scientific consensus that a substance is harmful if allowed to be discarded into the environment — the burden of proof falls on those who produce the item to assure its safety. In other words, cigarette companies should be forced to prove that filters aren't harmful in the environment, rather than requiring public health advocates to prove that they are harmful.

A global problem

This is only common sense, said Novotny. It may take years to gauge the full effects of trillions of cigarette butts on the environment, and the problem is growing worldwide.

While smoking rates are dropping or are stable in America and Europe (even Paris), they are skyrocketing in Africa, South America and Asia. China now has more smokers than the entire U.S. population.

As anyone who saw the movie "The Insider" knows, the tobacco industry has fought taking responsibility for the effects of cigarette smoking for a half century. But corporate culture is moving in the opposite direction, as more companies take responsibility for their products from cradle to grave, as the phrase goes.

Barnes, who left a successful practice as an attorney to work on policy issues related to cigarette smoking, and other researchers collaborating with Novotny, are working on an analysis to determine the feasibility of policies that hold the tobacco industry responsible for the entire life cycle of the products it sells, particularly in the area of filtered cigarettes.

The "principle of extended producer responsibility,' as it is known, is a common approach in Europe, and in the U.S. it is routinely used for automobile batteries and motor oil, which are collected by vendors and recycled.

Environmental impact

Using that principle, the tobacco industry would be responsible for the products it sells — not just until someone buys a pack of cigarettes, but for the entire life cycle of the cigarette, including the non-biodegradable filter. For cigarette manufacturers, faced with the Sisyphean task of collecting cigarette butts, banning filters is likely to appear the least onerous option — especially if cigarette butts are classified as toxic waste, which requires more expensive disposal.

Novotny's team says it's all part of a change in focus, from seeing cigarettes solely as a public health problem to recognizing that there are both health and environmental impacts.

"People do want to do something to protect the environment," Novotny said. "The responsibility is shifting from non-smokers and taxpayers to smokers and tobacco companies."

Novotny and Barnes are quite blunt that banning filtered cigarettes is not their ultimate goal; they want people to stop smoking.

But that's a long-term effort, and banning filters will chip away at it. Studies show that fewer people would smoke if filtered cigarettes weren't available. While pre-rolled cigarettes would not be banned, if filtered cigarettes weren't available more people would roll their own, and that would cut down on the number of cigarettes smoked per day by smokers.

California is the right place to give the ban a try, said Novotny, who has met with state EPA and stormwater officials to talk about the impact of cigarette butts on shorelines and marine environments. 

"California was the first place where a state agency declared second-hand smoke a health hazard," said Novotny. "They have a tradition of stepping out in front."