Our world is not your ashtray!

Our world is not your ashtray!

Written on 07/02/2020
Brian Darlington

Our columnist’s blood boils when he sees cigarette butts lying on the ground. He says that this is a “wicked problem”, involving habit and addiction – so it’s incredibly hard to solve …



In one of my previous posts on LinkedIn, I wrote about how crazy it is for governments to try to control people’s smoking habit during the lockdown by banning the sale of cigarettes. I stand by my comment that these rules do not make sense. However, in this article I am appealing to smokers to take care of the environment. I have never been a smoker myself (apart from trying it once or twice) but I have no issue with people who do smoke, even though it’s not a healthy thing to do. However, what I do stand against is the way many smokers think that it is okay to discard their cigarette butts on the ground.

I live in the centre of Vienna and, since the start of the lockdown, I have tried to take a walk each morning. On these walks I started noticing the number of cigarette filters that are scattered all over the place. I have always regarded Austria as a generally clean country and Vienna as a city where people take pride in their environment. However, when looking more closely, I see that it’s not always so. It is clear that many smokers (obviously not all; I apologise to those who do behave responsibly) either are doing their best to keep the street cleaners in a job or simply do not care about the city and environment.

Even though there are many street cleaners picking up waste and sweeping the pavements, they are clearly unable to cope with the number of filters that are thrown on the ground. You can stand on any sidewalk in Vienna and you will see cigarette filters lying around – in water trenches, under benches, in doorways, at bus stops. I have even seen cigarette filters under benches at a children's playground.

I am aware that this is not an isolated problem specific to Vienna – it’s common in cities around the world.

What is the wicked problem that we face?
Wicked problems are those that are almost impossible to “solve”. Trying to fix them often creates amplified spin-offs and unseen trade-offs.
So, in trying to stop the pollution from cigarette filters being tossed on the ground (which in itself is a huge wicked problem), society is faced with a number of related wicked problems, for instance:

Dropping cigarette filters on the ground has become a habit and many smokers do it largely unconsciously. However, even when it’s conscious behaviour – throwing the filter onto the ground – the smoker does not consider it as littering; it is an accepted habit in their mind.

Something is only defined as a habit when it becomes unconscious. If one is conscious of doing something, it is not a habit. The moment we operate in the unconscious the problem becomes “wicked”.

Maybe the rules introduced to ban smoking areas in restaurants and pubs have amplified the wicked problem. The spin-off from the ruling is that people are required to step outside to enjoy their cigarette and satisfy their habit or addiction. There are no ashtrays available outside in which to extinguish the cigarette and dispose of the filter. This highlights the issue that a zero-tolerance approach to habits and unconscious addictions does not work.

This is similar to when companies have a no-smoking policy, but do not permit any compromise, such as providing smoking areas. The spin-off is that people craving a cigarette will find somewhere to have a quick cigarette. The power of an addiction and a habit takes its dynamic out of the realm of rational control.

Here is the critical question: do we as leaders truly believe that we can control behaviours, habits or addictions by implementing rules and policing adherence to them? Remember, as humans we are fallible. We become distracted, make mistakes and act unconsciously. For example, having an addiction and not being permitted to smoke takes your mind off your job and the possibility of an incident increases. Do policy makers and those in authority really consider the by-products and trade-offs they invoke in their responses to habits and addictions?

Do posters make a difference?
It is clear that policing, negative publicity and posters do not work. They do not change the way people behave. For example, even though tobacco companies around the world are required to include scary photographs on the cigarette packs, this does not deter people from smoking. Even though the warning photographs are graphic, people ignore them, and they have limited, if any, effect. The addictions grow, and the need for a cigarette has a bigger influence than the photograph. The theory is that unpleasant photographs will deter people from starting to smoke, but I am not convinced. Taking up smoking in the first place is often due to social pressures (peer pressure or wanting to belong to the group). The power of this pressure by far overrides any sense of need for personal well-being and health. (Besides, the harm is not immediate; the harm cannot be seen.)

In Vienna, posters are displayed at various bus stops, requesting smokers to throw their filters in the disposal bins provided. Again, the posters might change some people’s habits, but it is evident that, for many, they make no difference at all. Believing that posters placed on notice boards will have an effect is far from the reality. Sometimes they do no more than provide a token gesture that the problem has been addressed. Just providing bins and displaying posters does not solve the wicked problem. The habit of throwing the filter on the ground has been developed.

What’s to be done?
As an insignificant individual, my focusing attention on an issue like the number of cigarette filters dropped on the ground will not make a difference to society.

It is important to tackle any wicked problem through engagement with groups that can make a difference. All wicked problems can only be effectively tackled with a transdisciplinary approach.

Let’s look at the wicked problem of the coronavirus. Some people started wearing masks in public but were in the minority. In fact, people stared at them, making them feel part of the out-group (just as I did). However, because they were afraid of catching the virus they continued wearing masks. The more publicity there was about the virus and explanations about the benefits of wearing the masks, the more people started wearing them (sadly, this statement doesn’t apply to Donald Trump). Now, when walking in the streets with a mask, we suddenly feel part of the in-group. Those not wearing masks are starting to feel out of place and will probably eventually join the in-group. This is what we learn through social psychology.

In order to address any issue, it is important to bring it into the open, develop an understanding of the challenges it poses, and then develop initiatives through engagement of a broad range of disciplines to agree on suitable, workable strategies.

For example, I wonder how many people know that cigarette filters are made of cellulose acetate, a form of plastic that degrades very slowly. Consequently, smoking harms not only the individual but the environment too. A typical cigarette filter can take anything from 18 months to 10 years to totally decompose, depending on conditions. Bringing this information to light and using it in positive messaging might be a step in tackling the problem.

In conclusion
So, we have much to think about. When tackling a wicked problem involving habit and addiction, what can we do? What effect can a blog or article have when there is seemingly no solution? Why bother, I ask myself sometimes.

We tackle wicked problems not to solve them but perhaps to make things better. We certainly do not go the solutions route or the zero route, because this often makes things worse. So, for whatever reason, if one person stops smoking or dropping cigarette butts, there has been good. We have at least addressed the problem rather than amplified it or given ammunition to its unconscious power.

No one knows why people change; we don’t really know what leads to a tipping point. I do know that changes have been brought about in me many times and I am grateful for them. I’m grateful to people for raising my awareness about issues and for moments of realisation. Maybe this article will trigger a realisation in you (smokers and non-smokers alike).