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Why Cigarette Butts Are Still Among the Worst Forms of Pollution

Analysis by Dr. Joseph Mercola Fact Checked

cigarette butts

Story at-a-glance -

  • For the first time in 30 years of collecting data, Ocean Conservancy finds plastics are the top 10 items in pollution around the world, with filtered cigarette butts ranking in first place. Although they appear to be biodegradable, they contain plastics that take up to 10 years to decompose
  • The World Health Organization (WHO) calls cigarette butts the most acceptable form of litter as 75 percent of smokers say they have thrown them on the ground or out their car window and studies estimate as many as 65 percent of butts are littered
  • Filters were added in response to research demonstrating smoking led to lung cancer; but after the industry found the filter also reduced smokers’ satisfaction, they altered the design in what the WHO calls fraudulent advertising and was ultimately little more than a marketing tool
  • The European Union is taking aim at plastic pollution responsible for damaging and killing aquatic life and ultimately ending up on your dinner plate. Consider taking steps to reduce your own impact by eliminating single use plastic, stopping smoking, and washing synthetic clothing less frequently

There are multiple reasons you should not start smoking, or you should quit. Despite decades of warnings by the U.S. Surgeon General, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) continues to call tobacco the “single largest preventable cause of cancer and disease in the United States.”1

Today, cigarette smoking kills more than 480,000 people every year and nearly 41,000 from exposure to secondhand smoke.2 There are short-term and long-term side effects. Smoking stains your teeth, changes your physical appearance and increases your risk of gum disease and tooth loss.

After years of smoking, you'll experience irreversible health damage to your heart, brain, respiratory system and reproductive health. The good news is when you stop smoking the beneficial changes begin in the first 24 hours and continue to mount over the coming days, weeks and years as your body clears out the damage done by nicotine and hundreds of other chemicals.3

Smoking also severely impacts the environment. While you might have thought cigarettes were completely biodegradable, it turns out the filters are made of plastic — not paper or biodegradable fibers — that can take up to 10 years to decompose.4

Marketing Tool Greatest Contributor to Plastic Pollution

In the 1950s, fears of lung cancer emerged. At this point cigarette companies initiated a shift in design from unfiltered to filtered cigarettes in an effort to allay fears of consumers.5 Tobacco smoke from cigarettes contain nearly 250 harmful chemicals, including heavy metals, arsenic, benzene, formaldehyde and polonium-210, a radioactive chemical element.6

Cigarette filters were reportedly engineered to reduce lung cancer by blocking toxic exposure. However, this created a problem for cigarette companies as the filter also reduced the smoker’s level of satisfaction with the cigarette.

In response, the companies redesigned the filters so they were not as effective, essentially creating a marketing tool in an attempt to assure smokers of the health benefits associated with filters, while still giving the smoker the nicotine hit. These claims were called fraudulent by the World Health Organization (WHO).7

While filters do block some toxins, they also make smoking smoother, encouraging smokers to puff more frequently and smoke more cigarettes. The tobacco industry recruited smokers under the guise that filtered cigarettes would protect their health.

However, when scientists analyzed the number of lung cancers based on the year of birth, they found the most common type of lung cancer in the 1960s and 1970s was squamous cell carcinoma, accounting for two-thirds of the cases. Today, with an increasing number smoking filtered cigarettes, the rate of adenocarcinoma is increasing.8 

Dr. David Wilson, pulmonologist at the University of Pittsburgh, comments the survival rates of the two types are nearly the same, demonstrating there is no persuasive evidence filters “have a beneficial impact on overall lung cancer survival."9 However, while the filters don't improve a smoker's health, they do have a significant negative impact on the environment.

European Union Cracks Down on Plastics and Cigarette Butts

Although plastic straws and bags receive widespread attention, an even larger problem are the plastic filters on cigarette butts. Today, they rank as the most littered item in the world. Nearly 6 trillion cigarettes are manufactured each year and over 90 percent of them contain plastic filters.10

Some cities have levied fees on cigarette packets to fund street cleaning, and others have levied fees against those who litter. Although some experts advocate for the development and implementation of biodegradable filters, others believe these also contain toxins that take a long time to degrade, and biodegradable cigarettes may increase littering as smokers feel “permitted” to drop them into the environment.

In late 2018, the European Parliament11 proposed widespread reduction in plastic use, including reducing plastic in tobacco products by 50 percent by 2025, bumping this to 80 percent by 2030. These targets were later rejected in lieu of tobacco companies being made responsible for funding campaigns to raise awareness about the problem of cigarette butt litter.

More recently, the European Chemical Agency12 proposed phasing out over 39,000 tons of plastics per year intentionally added into the environment, beginning in 2020. These include microplastic fibers and fragments in cigarette filters, cosmetics, detergents and coatings.13

This draft targets microplastics not considered necessary, but have been added for convenience or profit. Although the U.K. imposed a limited ban on plastic microbeads, the measure by the European Union is more comprehensive.

A scientific committee will review the proposal for slightly over a year before sending their opinion to the European Commission. At that time, the Commission will have three months to prepare legislation and it could take up to eight months after this before the use restrictions would come into force.14

WHO Calls Cigarette Butts the Most Acceptable Form of Littering

The Truth Initiative15 believes visible cigarette litter is so commonplace, even in areas where smoking rates have gone down, in part because they take so many years to decompose. Even under the most optimal conditions, it takes at least nine months for a cigarette butt to decompose and in many cases it takes years.

Unfortunately, littering is also one of the most common ways smokers dispose of their butts. Some communities have attempted to curb cigarette litter with disposable receptacles and smoke-free policies. But, littering is so common nearly 75 percent of smokers report doing it and studies estimate as much as 65 percent of all cigarette butts are littered.16

According to the WHO,17 tossing a cigarette butt out your car window or on the ground is one of the most acceptable forms of littering. Many are stubbed out on the pavement or dropped into gutters where they're carried through storm drains to rivers, streams and oceans.

Decreasing smoking rates may contribute to a lack of public awareness, especially in geographical areas more prone to experiencing a reduction in smoking rates. Santa Cruz County Tobacco Education Coalition Cochair, Rachel Kippen, comments:18

“Most of us have used a plastic bag or plastic straw, so we feel a sense of responsibility for how those products are revised, reused or recycled to be more environmentally friendly. However, most of us don’t smoke. In fact, less than 12 percent of California residents smoke. That leaves 88 percent wondering how to make a difference.”

According to Ocean Conservancy, the results of the 2017 International Coastal Cleanup (ICC) reports for the first time, in more than 30 years of the ICC, the top 10 items collected around the world were made of plastic.19

More than 780,000 volunteers in more than 100 countries collected 20.5 million pounds of trash. Cigarette butts topped a list that also included food wrappers, plastic beverage bottles, bottle caps and plastic grocery bags.

Plastics Damaging and Killing Aquatic Life

In a recent study published in the BMJ,20 scientists evaluated the effect cigarette butts are having on aquatic life. They placed fish in water where cigarette butts had been soaked and then removed. After four days, half the fish had died, demonstrating deadly toxins from the butts seep into the environment.21

Small pieces of plastic found in fibers or fragments and microbeads are also making their way into wild-caught and farmed fish alike. Fish appear to be confused by small plastic debris in the ocean and seek it out for food. In one study, scientists found behavioral evidence marine organisms are attracted to the chemical signature in plastic debris.22

Fish that feed by filtering sea water for plankton are ingesting large amounts of plastic, blocking their ability to absorb nutrients and having toxic side effects.23 By examining the bodies of beached whales, scientists have found large pieces of plastic, but the effects of microplastics, though less obvious, may be just as harmful.

According to the United Nations, at least 800 species around the world are affected by marine debris, 80 percent of which is plastic. Not all damage is done from ingestion as sea creatures can also become entangled in plastic debris, causing suffocation, starvation and drowning. A recent study found sea turtles ingesting just 14 pieces of plastic have an increased risk of death.24

Fish in the Pacific Northwest eat up to 24,000 tons of plastic each year, causing intestinal injury and death. The plastic also bioaccumulates up the food chain, often landing on your food plate. In a recent study25 of California fish markets, researchers found 25 percent of fish had plastic microfibers in their gut.

Microplastics Found in Tap Water, Bottled Water and Food Sources

Research commissioned by media outlet Orb revealed alarming data about plastic pollution in tap water, with 83 percent of samples tested worldwide coming back as contaminated. In the U.S., 94 percent of tap water samples were found to contain plastic — the most out of all the locations tested.26

For example, 16 fibers in tap water taken at the visitor’s center in the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., along with fibers in samples taken from Trump Tower in New York, were part of the findings. Plastic fibers were also found in water taken from Indonesia, India, Ecuador, Uganda, England and Lebanon.

Orb noted six primary sources of “invisible plastics,”27 one of which is synthetic microfibers from clothing, up to 1 million tons of which are released during washing each year. It’s unknown what the environmental effects of microfiber pollution may be, but their irregular shape may make them harder for marine life to excrete than other microplastics such as microbeads.

Researchers at the State University of New York also tested 259 bottles of 11 popular bottled water brands for the presence of microscopic plastic.28 Brands included Aquafina, Nestle Pure Life, Evian, Dasani and San Pelligerino. On average, the bottled water tested contained 325 pieces of microplastic per liter; just over 10 of those pieces were at least 100 microns in size, the rest were smaller.

Much of the research on microplastic pollution focuses on marine environments, but the toxins are also likely accumulating on land. According to research published in Science of the Total Environment,29 “Annual plastic release to land is estimated at four to 23 times that released to oceans.”

The use of sewage sludge, or biosolids, as fertilizer may be particularly problematic, as it is basically made up of whatever’s left over after sewage is treated and processed.

Become Part of the Solution Instead of Part of the Problem

On a global scale, a variety of efforts are underway to curb plastic waste and pollution. From turning plastic waste into liquid fuel to creating synthetic fibers that don’t shed, enterprising entrepreneurs are seeking ways to keep plastics out of the environment. Some manufacturers are also looking to create easily recycled packaging materials.30

You can take a stand on an individual level, making a conscious choice to use less plastic and stop littering. To become part of the solution instead of part of the problem, consider taking the following steps:31

Stop the litter — If you smoke, consider stopping. While it is a difficult addiction to break, it is also a dangerous habit to continue. Don’t throw cigarette butts or any other litter out your car window or on the ground.

Avoid using plastic bags — This includes plastic sandwich bags. Consider purchasing reusable produce bags for produce you purchase at the store or farmers market and insulated reusable grocery bags for your shopping.

Avoid disposable straws — Choose reusable straws made from widely available stainless steel, bamboo and even glass.

Wash synthetic clothes less frequently — When you do wash, use a gentle cycle to reduce the number of fibers released; consider using products to catch laundry fibers in your washing machine.

Choose a nonplastic toothbrush — Alternatives include toothbrushes made from bamboo or flax.

Avoid disposable plastic bottles — Bring your own reusable glass bottle instead, reducing plastic waste and your exposure to plastic pollution.

Washing paint brushes — Capture rinse water in a jar and dispose of it at your local landfill in designated spots for paint (don’t let it go down the drain).

Make your own paint — You can make your own milk paint instead of plastic-based latex and acrylics by “add[ing] lemon juice to skim milk and filter out the curd, adding natural pigment to what is left.”32