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Commentaryby David A. Plymyer5:06 pmNov 25, 20220

Scott’s cigarette butt lawsuit sends a worrisome message about the mayor’s priorities

In a city beset with grime and uncollected trash, the lawsuit filed against cigarette companies seems like a flimsy distraction [OP-ED]

Above: It’s more than butts: Garbage overflows from unemptied dumpsters at Poe Homes last month. (Mark Reutter)

Civil lawsuits, generally in the form of class actions, have played important and even noble roles in redressing wrongs by the manufacturers of products.

For example, the settlement reached last year between attorneys representing state, local and tribal governments and Purdue Pharma, manufacturer of OxyContin, will provide as much as $10 billion toward compensating and treating victims of opioid addiction.

At the other extreme, there’s the suit filed in Baltimore Circuit Court on Monday by Mayor Brandon Scott against Phillip Morris, Altria Group, RJ Reynolds Tobacco Company, British American Tobacco, Liggett Group, and the cigarette distributor, The George J. Falter Company.

The gist of the city’s complaint is that failure by cigarette companies to use biodegradable cigarette filters or warn smokers about the consequences of not properly disposing of the filters contributes to the estimated $5.3 million that Baltimore spends each year on cleaning up cigarette butts.

The suit alleges that improperly discarded filters can leach toxic additives such as heavy metals, formaldehyde and benzene into the soil and groundwater.

Scott boasted in a press release that “Baltimore is proud to lead the way in ensuring these these companies pay for cleanup costs,” describing the suit as the “first of its kind” by a city.

In my opinion, it’s also likely to be the last of its kind.

Press release announcing Baltimore's lawsuit against cigarette companies for failing to use biodegradable butts and contributing to the city's cleanup costs.

The press release announcing the  mayor’s “proud” lawsuit against cigarette companies.


Uphill Battle

In essence, the city claims that cigarette companies owe it money because smokers in the city litter, tossing cigarette butts on the ground or into the street rather than discarding them in trash receptacles.

The lawsuit apparently was inspired by an idea that first appeared in a law review article in 2014. If it was such a terrific idea, I suspect some other city would have tried it by now. Suffice it to say, the suit faces an uphill legal battle.

According to the filing, cigarette companies choose not to use biodegradable filters because smokers prefer the “draw” of non-biodegradable ones. The suit does not claim that the filters are inherently defective or unsafe – or that cigarette companies have engaged in misleading or targeted advertising about the filters.

City neighborhoods have become noticeably dirtier, and when was the last time anyone was prosecuted for littering?

In fact, cigarette companies choose to produce a lawful product that contains a non-biodegradable component for reasons of customer satisfaction and cost. Just like thousands of other companies do with thousands of other kinds of products.

Maybe tobacco companies should be required by federal or state law to use biodegradable filters, but I doubt that the courts are going to leave that decision up to a judge and jury in Baltimore.

“Solving” Problems

No one’s heart is going to bleed for cigarette companies, including mine.

My concern is that the suit is a metaphor for the way the Scott administration “solves” problems: Ignore its own role and point the finger of blame elsewhere.

Grime is right behind crime as a source of complaints from city residents. Baltimore neighborhoods have become noticeably dirtier as the departments of Public Works and Transportation struggle to keep up with recycling, trash collection and street sweeping.

Illegal dumping remains rampant, and when is the last time anyone in the city was prosecuted for littering?

Halting the downhill slide of city services requires hard work.

Baltimore faces an overwhelming number of challenges that require systematic approaches based on well-conceived plans: Blighted properties, a lack of affordable housing, poorly maintained sewage treatment plants and other aging or failing infrastructure, an inequitable property tax scheme and an inadequate public transit system, for starters.

Add to this list the chronic mismanagement of city agencies and the absence of employee performance reviews, which together result in a general decline in the quality of basic services.

Improvements promised when the position of chief administrative officer was created in 2020, at Scott’s urging, have never materialized. Already, the first CAO has jumped ship.

Then there’s a police department with an acute shortage of officers as it struggles to cope with the unrelenting scourge of violent crime.

Halting the downhill slide of city services requires hard work, much of it unglamorous and done behind the scenes. On the other hand, the cigarette butt lawsuit seems like grasping at straws, trying to give the impression that the Scott administration is serious about fixing what ails Baltimore.

Maybe I’m wrong, and the lawsuit is just a harmless attempt to collect a bit of extra money.

But I can’t shake the demoralizing belief that it is a sign of a city administration that has lost its way.

• David A. Plymyer retired as Anne Arundel County Attorney after 31 years in the county law office. He can be reached at dplymyer@comcast.net and Twitter @dplymyer.

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