You're a cop in Southern California right now, at the height of "Firestorm 2007." Half a million people have been evacuated and hundreds of homes have been destroyed -- and many more are threatened -- by the still-mostly-out-of-control wildfires, fanned by winds up to 100 kph. One dead, many injured so far.

You're about 30 km from the nearest fire, just patrolling on the outskirts of your quiet and relatively small town (which is not in any immediate danger from the fires), trying to live life and do your job as normally as possible when, all of a sudden, you notice the driver of the car in front of you toss a still-smoldering cigarette butt out of his car window.

After somehow ensuring that the hazard has been eliminated (tinder-dry bushes and trees line both sides of the street...and there are high winds), what do you do? After all, you've heard that cigarettes are the suspected/known cause of some of the fires but...

Do you ignore it (wouldn't want to be accused of over-reacting, making a mountain out of a mole hill, etc.)... pretend you didn't see it and just carry on, like nothing happened? Who would ever know?

Or do you initiate a traffic stop and pull the offending vehicle over? If you do that, what do you say/do to the driver? Do you just give him a warning...or do you throw the book at him (anything from a ticket for littering to reckless endangerment to the most severe penalty for 'the crime', whatever that may be)?

Or are you concerned that, if it winds up in court -- and assuming it's not thrown out somewhere along the line (possibly because it's either considered to be too 'trivial' or there are concerns about evidence, proving/winning the case, etc.) -- the penalty imposed will be little more than a slap on the wrist, therefore it's not worth pursuing?

WHAT WOULD YOU DO?

The above story never really happened... or if it did, in whole or in part, it's purely coincidental. But the point is, it illustrates a very real, possible/potential scenario. It's so sad that it takes an event as extremely tragic as Firestorm 2007 to bring it to light, but something must be done regarding smokers tossing cigarettes out of their car windows...in any and all circumstances! I don't care if the streets are completely flooded...and it's raining, snowing, hailing, sleeting, thundering and lightning, all at the same time! There is no excuse whatsoever for throwing cigarettes -- smoldering or not -- out of car windows!

What's the problem?

- "IS YOUR ASHTRAY BROKEN?" Absurd as it might sound, I've actually yelled that question to a few individuals who I've witnessed tossing butts. Their responses: Most often, shock...that I actually a) noticed them toss the butt (many of them attempt to do it very discreetly, dangling their arms out the window [with the cigarette 'cuffed'] for a couple of seconds before they drop it) and b) spoke up and said something to them...and then silence!

- "THIS CAR DOESN'T HAVE AN ASHTRAY." I've heard that lame excuse (for tossing butts out the window) a few times. Hello? As an ever-increasing percentage of the population doesn't smoke (about 85% in B.C. now) and everyone (including many smokers!) is becoming less and less tolerant of exposure to secondhand smoke, more and more automakers are providing vehicles with no ashtrays. If, for whatever reason, a smoker (who is among that ever-shrinking sub-group who smoke in their vehicles) should find her/himself in a vehicle that has no ashtray, the onus is squarely on that individual to 1) bring their own personal/portable ashtray along, 2) use any of the dozens of (smoke-free) NRTs (nicotine replacement therapies) that are on the market now or 3) simply not smoke for the duration of the trip. Whatever.

- "I DON'T WANT CIGARETTE ASHES/BUTTS (read, just some of the residue of my stinking, filthy, disgusting habit/addiction) MESSING UP MY CAR!" Whether it's actually stated that way or not, that is clearly the implication. In other words, "I'm selfish, I'll get my hit of nicotine as cleanly as possible, then get rid of the mess...in this case, my nicotine delivery system of choice. And if that means using the world as my ashtray, then so be it!"

Bottom line: There is never any excuse for tossing cigarette butts out of car windows, under ANY circumstances. Smoking materials continue to be the #1 leading form of litter, by far. This issue must be taken much more seriously...and butt-tossing smokers need to be charged, with the penalties escalating proportional to the circumstances.

Despite many problems -- labour strife, environmental concerns/restrictions, the pine beetle infestation, etc. -- forestry continues to be B.C.'s #1 leading industry. And, notwithstanding the fact that not all fires are 'bad' (re 'cleansing', the natural life cycle, etc.), Mother Nature starts more than enough fires (via lightning, etc.); we don't need criminally negligent smokers arbitrarily/inadvertently starting forest fires whenever and wherever they damn-well please, all because they couldn't be bothered to use their ashtrays.

Join Airspace Action on Smoking and Health... and help us lobby the provincial government for beefed-up and more-aggressively-enforced anti-littering laws.

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