The most common source of plastic pollution in our environment is not bottles, plastic bags or food wrappers, but cigarette butts. Smokers stub out nearly 800,000 metric tons of cigarettes every year, enough butts to cover New York’s Central Park. They are in every country on the planet, from city streets to rubbish tips, rivers and beaches.
Cigarettes contain single-use plastics because they are engineered and manufactured that way. Butts take a decade to degrade, releasing more than 7,000 toxic chemicals into the environment. Wildlife is also at risk: researchers found partly-digested cigarette butts in 70% of seabirds and 30% of sea turtles sampled for one study.
If cigarettes were treated appropriately as single-use plastics, they could theoretically be banned.
It’s not just cigarettes leaving a plastic trail. In South Asia, smokeless and chewing forms of tobacco such as gutka and khaini are sold in plastic pouches, millions of which litter the environment.
Vaping, electronic tobacco and nicotine products are creating a new wave of pollution, from the mining of materials for batteries to metal and plastic waste leaching into soil and water. In a report last yearthe US Environmental Protection Agency highlighted how lithium ion batteries are entering municipal waste systems as consumers incorrectly dispose of electronic tobacco and nicotine products in the household bin, because they’re branded “disposable”.
The problem is global. Despite pledges from tobacco companies that they will eventually stop selling cigarettes, 6tn are produced every year. And manufacturing, sales and waste from electronic tobacco and nicotine products are increasing globally as tobacco giants seek to replace lost revenue as smokers quit or die.
The industry uses a range of corporate social responsibility initiatives to paint itself green. Clean-ups, anti-littering campaigns and other gestures distract the public. Partnerships with environmental institutes and ministries on reforestation and forest conservation projects mask how growing tobacco crops lead to deforestation and desertification in countries like Brazil and Tanzania.
In Mali and Senegal in West Africa, the industry-led Project Waterfall sought to improve access to water. A similar initiative in Burkina Faso aims to provide drinking watereven though the country’s laws prohibit tobacco-sponsored initiatives. The last time the government evaluated tobacco use among the population was 2013, when almost one quarter of all men were smokers.
In the US, around a fifth of adults smoke, while slightly less than a fifth of teenagers use e-cigarettes. The tobacco industry has funded conservation organizations that include Keep America Beautiful, the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation and the Center for Watershed Protection.
In the Philippines, where more than 40% of men smoke, the tobacco industry has partnered with government agencies on environmental projects, including a river clean-up and an anti-litering campaign.
If countries have ratified the WHO framework on tobacco control (a global health treaty) – and most have – this type of partnership is in violation. The treaty obliges government not to interact with tobacco companies other than when strictly necessary. This, of course, doesn’t stop tobacco companies from wooing policymakers.
There are two main goals of public relations activities for tobacco companies. The first is that, from a regulatory perspective, they need to be able to manufacture, sell and profit from products that damage the environment. If electronic cigarettes were regulated out of the hands of children, it would not only protect them from addiction, but also protect the environment.
The second is to portray themselves as sustainable to investors. British American Tobacco has featured on the Dow Jones Sustainability Index for 20 years now and Philip Morris on the Climate Disclosure Project’s A List.
An industry that creates nearly 800,000 metric tons of toxic waste a year from cigarette butts sits oddly with environmental sustainability. There’s no escaping the reality: tobacco waste continues to accumulate because these addictive products are not environmentally friendly but are designed to hook new customers and perpetuate consumption.
This could change. HAS UN plastics treaty is on the table, offering a global mechanism to tackle the lifecycle of plastics. Many authorities around the world – including India, Rwanda and the US state of California – have put in place or are considering policies to ban single-use plastics. These policies should include the plastic waste coming from tobacco and nicotine products, including electronic products.
Governments should also require the tobacco industry to clean up the waste that results from its products and pay for the environmental damage. And they can implement the WHO treaty, which has provisions to help governments protect themselves from being the targets of industry-sponsored PR campaigns.
Governments, investors and the global community should refuse to accept the tobacco industry’s greenwashing sleight of hand. Despite sustainability claims, its new portfolio of products could end up further polluting in terms of energy consumption, materials and waste.
Tobacco is killing us and the planet.
Dr. Vinayak Prasad is program manager, WHO Tobacco Free Initiative and
Andy Rowell is senior research fellow, University of Bath Tobacco Control Research Group