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Liz explained that she always obeys the city laws regarding designated smoking areas, but sometimes it's very difficult to follow after a long day of exhausting work. (photo by Maya Sugarman)

CITYWIDE — In the Santa Monica Pier parking lot, cigarette butts littered the ground around the feet of Bubba Gump employee Julie Tabb as she smoked Wednesday.

“There should be more places to throw these away,” she said, admitting that she will occasionally flick away a butt if she carries it too far without seeing a receptacle.

This time, though, Tabb walked about 30 feet and disposed of her cigarette in a trash can.

Not everyone is so conscientious.

“There are more important issues than cigarette butts,” said a smoker as he pushed his butt through a metal grate in the sidewalk covering a water meter off the Third Street Promenade. “You’ll never see that again.”

Over the last decade, City Hall has passed numerous ordinances driving smokers farther away from main attractions and into alleyways and side streets, where ashtrays such as those formerly available in outdoor dining areas and patios are absent. Concerns about littering — and whose responsibility it is to combat that problem — remain unaddressed.

The number of butts that find their way onto the beach alone is one testament to the need for something more. According to Heal the Bay’s Web site, which has a comprehensive database about beach debris from the last 10 years, volunteers have collected 4,606 cigarette butts — more than a quarter of all trash pieces — during 22 clean-ups since last July.

“Bits of Styrofoam and cigarette butts are by far the most prevalent items found at clean-ups,” said Heal the Bay spokesperson Matthew King. “The misconception is that they’re left by careless people in the immediate vicinity, but in fact the majority get in through storm drain systems.”

Jose Aguilar, Downtown maintenance crew leader, estimated that his team cleans up between 1 million and 1.5 million cigarette butts each year, mostly from side streets and alleyways. Those numbers, he said, have decreased noticeably due to recent city ordinances — most violators are tourists — and he doesn’t see it as a huge problem.

“It’s part of routine maintenance,” he said.

Another issue is fire — Aguilar said that a trash can catches fire in his district about once every two months.

One solution to the littering could be to install more receptacles, as Tabb suggested. Currently, City Hall has installed no receptacles specifically for cigarette butts. Recycle Coordinator Wes Thompson of the Solid Waste Management Division said the issues of encouraging smoking close to the doors of businesses and who would empty and maintain the receptacles stalled discussion.

That hasn’t stopped some business owners from putting out their own receptacles, said Kathleen Rawson, CEO of Bayside District Corp., the group the manages the downtown area.

“Whoever puts them out cleans up after them,” she said.

Montana Avenue Merchants Association Chairman and Caffe Luxxe owner Mark Wain sees no problem with that.

“In essence, by providing a receptacle the city would be encouraging people to violate the ordinance,” he said, referring to a law passed in 2006 that made smoking illegal anywhere within 20 feet of public entrances, exits and windows. A $250 fine is charged to violators in outdoor areas of assembly such as dining areas, bus stops and ATM lines.

Jane Walker of Three Bags Full on Montana confirmed that smoking has decreased in the popular shopping district since the ordinance took effect.

“People can no longer just sit and smoke,” she said. “The stores are too close together.”

Smoking is banned entirely on the promenade, Farmers’ Markets, the beach and public parks, and strictly limited on the pier. Violators of these laws, which took effect at different times within the last six years, can be charged up to $750.

In February, the City Council banned smoking in the common areas of condominiums and apartments. Residents can seek damages of at least $100 in small-claims court against first offenders.

Then, in April, City Hall distributed “tool kits” to business owners consisting of window clings, patio signs, tip cards in five languages and posters reminding customers of the laws. The campaign centered around the slogan “Smoking Doesn’t Belong Here.”

Some business owners think City Hall hasn’t gone far enough.

Gary Gordon, CEO of the Main Street Business Improvement Association, said it’s been clear since the 2006 ordinance that people have been tossing more cigarette butts onto the sidewalk. Unfortunately, he said, those with power to change anything split on the issue of installing receptacles.

“It’s an impasse,” he said. “A perfect catch-22.”

Gordon cited issues that are difficult to reconcile, such as the potential for receptacles to both promote smoking and curtail littering.

A problem also arises when a business owner puts up a receptacle without assistance from City Hall. If the receptacle is outside the mandated 20 feet from the business, property rights and liability are at issue. If the receptacle is within 20 feet, the business owner may be charged with knowingly allowing people to smoke, a violation of the ordinance.

“The burden is on the city to figure something out,” Gordon said, clarifying that, like the Montana association, his organization supports the ordinance and wants to be a part of the solution.

“There’s nothing about this ordinance that makes it any harder for either smokers or businesses to comply with littering laws,” countered Deputy City Attorney Adam Radinsky, adding that he has not heard of anyone being fined merely for using a receptacle within 20 feet of a business.

Radinsky said City Hall researched the issue in other California communities with 20 feet laws — such as Berkeley and Davis — before enacting the ordinance.

“It would probably would be a good idea to offer some sort of receptacle,” Rawson said. “It’s not a crime to smoke but it is crime to litter, and the city is not setting people up to abide by that law.”

Overall, though, Rawson said that it takes “a community effort” to keep Santa Monica clean.

In the end, most people have a stake in combating litter.

“I don’t want this to turn into New York,” said David Nieto as he smoked a cigarette outside the promenade restaurant where he works. “I don’t litter because it’s wrong.”

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