By Anna Grace Hottinger
Whether you are at the playground, outside of the store, on the side of a trail, or in our lakes and waterways, there will likely be a cigarette butt. Rarely does a day go by without spotting one, or many. Beyond their unappealing look, they are dangerous to the health and safety of everyone who shares this world. It’s been apparent for a long time that the waste created by tobacco products is not good for the environment. And unfortunately, the industry has always been well aware of the damage that tobacco waste can do to the environment.
The tobacco industry started citing its awareness of cigarette butt litter in 1979. In an internal industry document uncovered in the 1998 Master Settlement Agreement, they stated that they needed to “…establish a policy related to ‘litter’. Without one we run the risk of drifting into another controversy, which is already active on the Federal and State levels.”1 As the document continues, it states that “Litter is a highly visible but relatively unimportant part of the solid waste issue.” The document continues to state that litter is a “high annoyance” issue and ignoring it would be a bad move in part of getting potential customers, but addressing it would also be opposing who they are. In all, they are trying to divert the issue of litter for company clout. This is only the beginning of the tobacco industry ignoring the detrimental effects of their products. Stating that litter is an annoyance issue and relatively unimportant was the first sign that while they were aware of the potential damage, they wanted to dull it down for possible buyers.
Moving onto the 1990’s, R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company (RJR) kicked off a “Beach Anti-Litter” program.2 The goal of the program was to raise awareness for proper litter disposal and proper disposal of cigarettes. While the initiative seemed good at first glance, when asked if RJR was admitting to their products having environmental harm, they responded with “No. Cigarette butts are not harmful to the environment, but all litter, including cigarette butts, needs to be disposed of properly. The materials contained in a cigarette filter are degradable”. This is false, as cigarette filters are made of cellulose acetate (plastic fibers) which can take up to ten years to decompose and turn into microplastics.3
These are just a few of the examples of the tobacco industry’s awareness of the damage that they are doing to the environment and their efforts to keep this information hidden from the general public. To this day, the tobacco industry continues to keep important information from consumers. New, electronic products like vapes and e-cigarettes are detrimental to the environment because of the heavy metals, nicotine salts, plastic, and more that leak into soil, waterways, and the environment. One of the worst parts about these newer products is that the tobacco industry left consumers with no guidance as to how to dispose of these products. Nicotine is classified as a hazardous waste and the batteries in e-cigarettes can be flammable and dangerous. To put it in perspective, when you buy a computer, which is hazardous waste, the company tells you how to properly dispose of them. Few if any e-cigarette companies include disposal instructions on their packaging.
In summary, the tobacco industry has been well aware of the damage it is doing to the environment but has failed to take proper measures to mitigate the damage. Rather, they have told consumers not to worry and put money into campaigns to mitigate litter or environmental damage as a whole, instead of taking accountability for the damage they cause to the environment. Cigarettes make up approximately one-third of all collected litter.4 While reactive work like starting clean-up campaigns and funding litter clean-up organizations can help, the tobacco industry has taken the easy way out. They need to be held accountable for the harm they have caused to the environment. There are a few simple policy initiatives that can be taken to hold the industry accountable. These include sales restrictions, comprehensive smoking restrictions, hazardous waste or materials laws, and educational campaigns. All of these policy solutions aim to address the source of the problem of tobacco use, which in the long-term, is harmful to the environment.
About the Author
Anna Grace Hottinger (she/ her) is the Youth Advocacy and Community Outreach Intern at the Association for Nonsmokers-Minnesota, also a Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids Youth Ambassador. A majority of her work has been around youth education, peer-to-peer research, and political engagement. She is a sophomore at the University of New Mexico studying Community Health Education. Aside from tobacco prevention organizing, Anna Grace is also engaged in policy research and organizing around climate justice and education policy. In her free time you can find her advocating around climate change, walking her dog, reading or running 16 miles in the mountains for fun!
(1) Litter: A Proposal for TI Policy. University of California San Francisco Industry documents library. https://www.industrydocuments.ucsf.edu/docs/#id=yzdk0016. Accessed September 1, 2022.
(2) Beach Anti-Litter Program. Expansion of Daytona Beach Program. University of California San Francisco Industry documents library. https://www.industrydocuments.ucsf.edu/tobacco/docs/#id=lxfb0082. Accessed September 1, 2022.
(3) Novotny TE, Slaughter E. Tobacco product waste: An environmental approach to reduce tobacco consumption. Current Environmental Health Reports. 2014;1(3):208-216. doi:10.1007/s40572-014-0016-x
(4) 5 ways cigarette litter impacts the environment. Truth Initiative. https://truthinitiative.org/research-resources/harmful-effects-tobacco/5-ways-cigarette-litter-impacts-environment. Accessed September 1, 2022.