Noe Valley Voice September 1999

Shops See Ashtray Law as a Pain in the Butt

By Kathy Dalle-Molle

Are there too many cigarette butts on 24th Street?

Definitely, say Noe Valley merchants. But the neighborhood's shopkeepers are choking over the city's proposed solution to the problem: a new ordinance that calls for virtually all San Francisco offices, stores, bars, and cafes to put ashtrays outside their businesses.

The "Kick Butts" legislation, sponsored by Supervisor Mabel Teng, was passed by the Board of Supervisors on Aug. 2, and Willie Brown had 30 days to sign it. (The vote was 8 to 3, with supervisors Mark Leno, Gavin Newsom, and Leland Yee dissenting.)

The measure requires all businesses that have employees or patrons who smoke to provide ashtrays outside the entrances and exits of their buildings.

Teng says she introduced the legislation in response to complaints that people were "'litter-ally' tripping over mounds of cigarette butts left outside of buildings where smoking is banned." According to Teng's office, the Department of Public Works has reported a tenfold increase in the amount of cigarette butts on city streets since January 1998.

"Complaints about unsightly mounds of cigarette and cigar butts sprawled on sidewalks are on the rise all over the city," Teng says. "While we certainly don't want to encourage anyone to smoke, we must give those who do smoke an alternative to littering."

Still, members of the Noe Valley Merchants and Professionals Association see the ordinance as a "knee-jerk reaction," as Carol Yenne, owner of Small Frys, puts it. "We all understand it's a problem," she says, "but I think we need a more thoughtful, aesthetically pleasing approach."

At a meeting in late July, the Merchants Association voted unanimously against adoption of the measure.

"Many of us don't support smoking," says attorney Robert Roddick, who is president of the association. "This law encourages smoking in front of businesses. Who wants 300 ashtrays along the 24th Street corridor? People who smoke should pick up their own butts. This ordinance is ordering me to spend money or I get in trouble."

(Teng says the cost of a freestanding ashtray could be as little as $20 and that a bucket with sand would be acceptable.)

Although it seems unlikely that Mayor Brown will veto the ordinance, Roddick is sending him a letter explaining the group's opposition.

"I won't put an ashtray out," says Roddick, whose law office is on Castro near 24th Street. "People sit on my stoop, smoking, drinking coffee, and eating snacks. I tell them to take their garbage with them. What DPW is complaining about wasn't created by merchants. The supervisors really didn't think this law through."

Supervisor Mark Leno, a small business owner and resident of Noe Valley for 18 years, concurs.

"I don't think we need any additional unnecessary laws on the books," he says. "Merchants and property owners are already required to keep their area clear of trash and debris. This is yet another act, but it's not going to cure the problem."

Leno is also concerned about the potential for vandalism. "People could come by and knock the ashtrays over, and then we'd have an even bigger mess," he says, noting that he won't be placing an ashtray in front of Budget Signs, the South of Market business he owns.

"If the law is followed, everyone will have an ashtray," he says. "There will be a landscape of ashtrays, and I don't think that's reasonable or desirable. We need to enforce the laws we already have."

Most Noe Valley merchants know that the rise in cigarette butts is due to the strict state law, enacted a year and a half ago, that bans indoor smoking everywhere but people's homes.

In the past, smokers stayed inside and used ashtrays supplied by the business. But now that smoking in bars, offices, and restaurants is prohibited, people light up outside, usually near a building's entrance.

However, Teng thinks the businesses should still take care of the fallout. "The city requires any establishment that sells food to maintain trash bins outside their premises," she says. "Similarly, a business that has employees or customers who smoke should be required to provide ashtrays in order to minimize litter."

But the merchants argue that ashtrays will just encourage customers to bring their drinks outside, which means breaking another law. "It's human nature that they'll do that," says Roddick. "That's why bars don't put benches outside. They don't want to encourage patrons to bring their drinks outside."

Both Teng's office and the Department of Public Works have stated that the ordinance will be implemented "with great flexibility." Businesses will first be asked to cooperate, then given a warning. Only if the warning fails will they be issued a ticket. (Fines range from $25 to $100.) Shops will also have leeway in choosing the size, type, and location of the ashtrays.

'If You Smoke, Don't Be a Pig'

The new ordinance does have its supporters. William "Metz" Metzler, a dental hygienist at the offices of Dr. Kinney and Dr. Savio on 24th Street, sweeps up the pile of butts in front of his office every morning before he starts work.

"Businesses should get ashtrays," he says. But he also believes smokers should be more considerate.

"People sit on our steps and grind cigarettes into the ground," Metzler says. "If they want to smoke, that's their business. I'm not against smoking. It's just, will they please throw the butts in the street so the street sweeper can pick them up, and not drop them on the sidewalk or our steps? It's rude."

Wayne Basso, owner of Noe's Bar, plans to purchase an outdoor ashtray soon.

"There are lots of butts around," he admits. "If I need to get an ashtray for outside and it costs a few bucks, who cares? I hate a dirty sidewalk, and I know the bars are the main culprit for cigarette butts."

Storm Large, a bartender at the Rat & Raven, says she has mentioned the new ordinance to her manager and they plan to comply when they get official notice from the Board of Supervisors. Still, she's not pleased with the law.

"It's just one more thing to worry about," she says. "We're not here to police people's habits. If you smoke, don't be a pig. That's common sense. Throw away your cigarette. Don't leave it on the ground. The responsibility lies with the patrons who smoke, but the bar has the potential to get fined."

Although Mayor Brown has not yet signed the ordinance into law, a spot-check along 24th Street in August turned up a few establishments that were already providing ash cans at their entrance.

Both the Dubliner and the Rover's Inn, two bars owned by Vince Hogan, have ashtrays, as does Tully's coffee store next door to Bell. But according to Loretta Green, Tully's manager, it has nothing to do with the ordinance. "We've had an ashtray outside forever, even when we were Spinelli's."

Green says she and other employees sweep up several times a day, to get rid of litter generated by those who "stand outside, smoke, and throw their butts on the sidewalk.

"It's especially bad in the morning when I get to work -- from all the bars the night before," she adds. "Every morning, there are lots of butts. But most of our customers are conscientious and into the environment, so if they smoke they sit near our ashtray."

"There are cigarette butts outside our store all the time," agrees Carrie Secretario, a supervisor at Starbucks across the street. "Coffee and cigarettes go hand in hand. It's always been a problem. People just step on a cigarette and leave, even though we have a garbage can out front."

She and other employees sweep the doorway and the sidewalk frequently, she says, noting that Starbucks' corporate policy requires employees to bus tables and sweep outside every 10 minutes.

Still, she's not sure if the store will want to put out an ashtray. "Then it looks like Starbucks is promoting smoking," she says.

Trees Are Not Ashtrays

Secretario says that in early August Herb's Fine Foods placed a sign on a newly planted tree in front of the restaurant, stating, "This tree is not an ashtray." Within a few days, the sign was removed, but the problem still exists. As the Voice left Starbucks after talking to Secretario, a man stood near the tree, smoking a cigarette and dropping ashes onto the bark chips that surrounded the tree's roots.

Linda Jweinat, manager of Panetti's, wishes smokers would spare the trees, too.

"I pull cigarettes out of the two planters in front of the store and under our tree all the time," says Jweinat. "It's disgusting. But an ashtray in front of our store would not be in keeping with the ambiance. I'd hate to have it. I could see if they had an ashtray at the end of every block or if they strapped them onto the existing garbage receptacles, but not in every merchant's doorway."

Small Frys' Carol Yenne mentioned a similar solution: "I was at a resort on vacation and saw a garbage can with an ashtray on top of it. That might work. This law might be fine for the office buildings downtown, where there are gobs of cigarettes, but in a neighborhood like Noe Valley it doesn't seem necessary. The DPW should work on enforcing the existing laws and make sure merchants keep their sidewalks washed down."

Yenne says she sweeps daily and gets her sidewalks steam-cleaned quarterly. "It costs me a hundred dollars a year," she says.

Lisa Moro, manager of Gallery of Jewels at 24th and Castro, also wonders whose butts are getting kicked. "We get excessive cigarette butts here because we're right near a bus stop. People still litter even if there's a trash can right in front of them. It's not fair to make it mandatory that businesses have an ashtray. We sweep regularly. We also steamclean the sidewalk. I never throw stuff on the street."

And besides, she says, "This law isn't going to help. It won't do anything. It's just one more law."