It’s Time to Ban Cigarette Filters

9 June 2023

By Mary Assunta, Inter Press Service

BANGKOK, Thailand, Jun 9 2023 (IPS) – The second session of the Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee on plastic pollution (INC-2), held in Paris, France, from May 29 to June 02, 2023, concluded with optimism and the prospect of ending plastics pollution. Over 700 delegates from 169 Member States agreed to prepare a zero draft of agreement ahead of the third session in November this year.

Among the more important and interesting debates, health advocates attending the negotiations reported that it was essential to discuss “how to categorize the thousands of types of plastics, chemical precursors and products in a way that allows for a coherent approach to ending plastic pollution.

Some favoured focusing on the chemical precursors, eliminating the most toxic and polluting ones,” while others acknowledged that not every type of plastic could be recycled or reinvented, and certain plastics like cigarette filters need to disappear for good.

Leonce Sessou, speaking on behalf of Action on Smoking and Health (ASH), Corporate Accountability (CA), African Tobacco Control Alliance (ATCA), and other members of the Stop Tobacco Pollution Alliance (STPA), urged Member States to align the future legally binding instrument on plastics with the public health objective of ending the tobacco epidemic, to which most have already committed via the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC).

Tobacco control groups, for example, called for the elimination of cigarette filters. They drew attention to the fact that cigarette butts are some of the most prevalent forms of plastic pollution on the planet and harm land and marine ecosystems.

They reminded delegates to align with human rights and health treaties, particularly the WHO FCTC, and make the tobacco industry pay for its pollution and legacy waste. The WHO FCTC health treaty seeks to reduce the supply and demand for tobacco and protect health policies by keeping the tobacco industry out of policy meetings.

According to a WHO report which called for a ban on cigarette filters, about 4.5 trillion discarded filters (butts) from the almost six trillion cigarettes consumed globally find their way into the environment annually.

They are the top waste item collected from coastlines and urban settings. Cigarette filters are small enough to be ingested by marine animals, and when these plastic filters break down, they release thousands of microplastic particles.

Microplastics have been detected in commercial seafood, other food items, drinking water, and human tissue; this contamination is a threat to food safety and security.

Research shows cigarette butts are a source of microplastic contamination that creates chemical pollution (due to the toxic chemicals found in tobacco products) that leach into the environment. Cigarette butt leachates are found to harm various forms of aquatic organisms, including key food sources for fish and shellfish.

Experts agree that banning cigarette filters is the best solution to this plastic and toxic waste problem. Clean-ups, anti-littering legislation, and redesigning filters for recyclability or biodegradability have not worked and are not viable solutions.

Government committees from Belgium, the Netherlands, and Denmark have recently called for a ban on filters and recommended the same for the rest of the European Union Member States.

For at least five decades, the tobacco industry has known that cigarette filters provide no health benefits; instead, they make cigarettes burn hotter, deliver more nicotine, and increase addiction.

Yet they have misled smokers into thinking filters make cigarettes “safer.” As awareness around smoking increased, the tobacco industry made advertisements for filtered cigarettes more appealing to pacify smokers’ concerns.

Advocates participating in the INC-2 reported a lot of misunderstandings related to cigarette filters that are yet to be addressed. In its blog on day 5 of the negotiations, ASH stated, “Many people, not just people who smoke, assume filters make cigarettes safer rather than more dangerous.”

Numerous countries already have a national policy banning single-use plastics such as plastic bags, straws, and cotton buds but have inadvertently not included cigarette filters. However, advocates speaking to government delegates found widespread support for a ban on cigarette filters.

As the possibility of a cigarette filter ban gathers momentum, the tobacco industry’s public relations (PR) machinery is already in motion implementing beach cleans-ups and cigarette butt collection activities through its corporate social responsibility (CSR) programs across the globe.

Before the third session of the Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee on plastic pollution (INC-3) resumes in Nairobi in November, governments must remember that the tobacco industry is not a stakeholder but a polluter that must be held liable for the myriad harms it has caused as well as continues to cause to human health and the environment.

Over 100 non-governmental health organizations of the STPA, along with other environmental groups such as Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives, Ecowaste Coalition, Break Free From Plastic (BFFP), Ban Toxics (Philippines), Our Sea of East Asia Network (OSEAN), Development Indian Ocean Network, Earthday.org (Earth Day Network), Green Africa Youth Organization, Vietnam Zero Waste Alliance, and Boomerang Alliance have called for the elimination of cigarette filters.

Mary Assunta is Senior Policy Advisor, Southeast Asia Tobacco Control Alliance (SEATCA)