Cigarette filters pose constant harm to environment

28 November 2023

By Tom Novotny, Debby Sy and Judith Mackay, ChinaDaily 

An important international conference on plastics is taking place in Nairobi, Kenya, through Sunday. Member states of the United Nations, including China, are negotiating a global treaty to end plastic pollution. This provides a rare opportunity to tackle unsustainable-plastics production and its impact on climate change, environmental pollution, biodiversity, health, and human rights. A draft text is already under consideration.

The worldwide escalation of plastic pollution is alarming, with plastic production expected to increase to 34 billion metric tons by 2050, fuelled by $400 billion of oil and petrochemical industry investment to increase the supply of fossil-fuel-based plastics. The time has come to ban single-use consumer plastic products that do not biodegrade but break into micro and nanoplastic particles now found throughout our oceans and the human body.

It comes as a surprise to many, even to some governments, that tobacco products have a rightful place for inclusion in the plastics treaty. It is well known that tobacco use leads to immense human harm and premature death. Less well-known is the environmental impact of tobacco production and use. This includes deforestation by cutting down trees to cure tobacco leaves, farming practices, fires caused by smoking, and land use to grow tobacco instead of food.

Most relevant but less visible in the context of the plastics treaty are the billions of cigarette butts that are discarded each year. The main component of these waste products is the cellulose acetate filter. This nonbiodegradable, nonrecyclable, nonessential, and toxic single-use plastic is a source of environmental microplastics.

Cigarette butts have been the most common trash item collected from beaches for decades. Added to this are the wrappings, packaging, and lighters, as well as disposable plastic nicotine-delivery devices such as vapes. The marine plastic pollution caused by cigarette butts alone, without accounting for their hazardous constituents, is conservatively estimated to cost $20 billion annually.

Cigarettes and the filters attached to almost all of them are unlike other products in that they have no “good” use. They are the leading global cause of preventable premature death, and 1 billion people still smoke them; billions of the waste products from tobacco use pollute our increasingly fragile environment. The cigarette filter is designed to attract smokers and give an illusion of safety, despite having no proven ability to make the product safer and being linked to a more-aggressive form of lung cancer.

The plastics treaty should include tobacco-related plastic products in binding obligations, a call made by the World Health Organization (WHO) and the global Stop Tobacco Pollution Alliance.

The imminent plastic-treaty negotiations should consider an immediate ban on selling plastic cigarette filters and other single-use plastic tobacco products as harmful, ubiquitous, and nonessential pollutants

Yet only a few countries, even those that had publicly opposed single-use plastics, include cigarette filters in their environmental policies. The plastics treaty is an opportunity for governmental tobacco control and environmental agencies, along with civic groups — traditionally separate in their policy work — to jointly address plastic pollution caused by tobacco product use. This effort could have significant public health as well as environmental benefits.

It is also important to recognize that “Big Tobacco” and its commercial and “voluntary” affiliates must never be allowed to influence or dictate public health or environmental policy development. A specific treaty obligation already applies concerning such actions under Article 5.3 of the WHO’s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, to which 183 countries are now Parties. This obligation clearly states: “In setting and implementing their public health policies with respect to tobacco control, Parties shall act to protect these policies from commercial and other vested interests of the tobacco industry.” The plastics treaty must not undermine this binding obligation, which may instead be a model for conflict-of-interest policies regarding other industries as part of the treaty negotiations.

Concerns have surfaced about the active involvement of commercial interests in the plastics-treaty process because these industries have direct conflicts with the planned treaty objectives. Their businesses rely on expanding, not reducing or eliminating, plastic production and use.

The imminent plastic-treaty negotiations should consider an immediate ban on selling plastic cigarette filters and other single-use plastic tobacco products as harmful, ubiquitous, and nonessential pollutants. Without these defective plastic consumer products, the world will be much cleaner, and humans will suffer much less of the enormous preventable mortality that they cause.

Professor Tom Novotny, Attorney Debby Sy and Dr Judith Mackay are members of the Stop Tobacco Pollution Alliance.

The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.  


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