Motorists who flick cigars or Cigarettes out their windows may soon get the snitches off their tail.
County officials plan to snuff out a telephone hotline established nearly three years ago that allows the public to report drivers who discard tobacco products from their vehicles.
Those who helped start the hotline are upset and have appealed to the county Board of Supervisors to rescue it.
“The public is not ready to let this campaign die,” said Marianne Brown, a public health consultant and former chairwoman of the county's Tobacco Control Coalition.
The license plate number and other relevant information about the incident is relayed from the county-run hotline to the regional office of the California Highway Patrol. After verifying the information, the department mails sternly worded warnings to the offenders.
Since it was established in October 2004, the hotline has received an average of 1,100 calls per month. The Highway Patrol estimates that it has issued 4,000 to 5,000 warnings during the campaign's lifetime.
Smoking while driving isn't illegal. But tossing a burning cigarette out the window violates two sections of the vehicle code that are punishable by fines of $340 to $1,000.
The county's Health and Human Services Agency will unplug the hotline Aug. 31 because it no longer fits within the newly revised goals of the county's Tobacco Control Resource Program, said Phyllis Elkind, a county administrator.
The “Hold on to Your Butt” hotline is clearly aimed at Reducing cigarette litter rather than persuading people to stop smoking, which is the primary thrust of the county's efforts, Elkind said.
“The overarching goal of our tobacco-control program is to Reduce deaths, disabilities and disease related to tobacco use and second-hand smoke,” she said.
The hotline is one component of a regional tobacco litter campaign launched in 2004 with a $10,000 grant from the state Coastal Commission.
Although the county didn't receive any of that money – the Lung Association was the grant recipient – it decided to participate in the campaign by assigning existing staff to monitor the hotline.
The regional Highway Patrol office also donated staff time to verify the allegations. To help defray the CHP's costs, the Lung Association provided stamps.
Now, county officials have decided that their clerical staff needs to support other programs instead of the hotline.
Overall, the county receives $600,000 annually from the state for its anti-smoking initiatives. Much of the money is distributed to nonprofit groups, hospitals and health care organizations that design programs aimed at discouraging tobacco use.
To stay eligible for the state money, the county's tobacco control program must update its goals every three years. While undergoing that process last year, the tobacco litter hotline “didn't arise as one of the top priorities from our community,” Elkind said.
Brown, the public health consultant, disputes that interpretation.
“I don't think they gave us an opportunity to express our support for this hotline,” she said. “It was not on the table.”
Another anti-tobacco activist not included in the county's decision-making was Molly Bowman-Styles, policy manager for the American Lung Association of California's San Diego office.
“My colleagues and I are heartbroken because the hotline is really one of the big success stories in tobacco control,” Bowman-Styles said. “It irks me so much.”
In July 2006, Brown wrote an eight-page evaluation of the “Hold on to Your Butt” campaign. She concluded that the hotline, combined with distribution of 10,000 bumper stickers and widespread publicity about the campaign, were making smokers think twice about tossing their Cigarettes.
Citing statistics from the Highway Patrol, Brown reported that the number of citations in San Diego County for discarding Cigarettes from vehicles fell by 12 percent during the hotline's first year. In the same period, tickets for the same offense in neighboring Orange County, which doesn't have the hotline, rose by 33 percent.
Others have challenged the county's wisdom in shutting down the hotline amid a protracted drought, when fire hazards are high. And some environmentalists said the hotline has helped Reduce the number of cigarette butts going into storm drains and eventually polluting beaches.
“We feel the hotline has been a tremendous success,” said Bill Hickman of the San Diego Chapter of the Surfrider Foundation. “We and other citizens were happy to have an outlet to report the butt flickers,” he said.
Meanwhile, the Highway Patrol is willing to continue sending the warnings to scofflaws if an alternative funding source can be found for the hotline and the donated stamps keep flowing, said department spokeswoman Paula Todd.