Where do all those butts go? Public roads, waterways, parks and beaches. New research released today further demonstrates the negative impact that cigarette filters and discarded cigarette butts have on the environment. Cigarette butts contain heavy metals that can leach into waterways, posing a threat to aquatic life. The new data is part of a special supplement – funded by the national public health foundation Legacy® – in the journal Tobacco Control. In observance of Earth Day, Legacy urges smokers to quit smoking, and if they can't, to properly dispose of cigarette butts and filters.
Tobacco is the No. 1 cause of preventable death in the United States, and cigarette filters/butts are the No. 1 littered item found on beaches and in urban environments. According to environmental cleanup reports, nearly 2 million cigarettes or cigarette filters/butts were picked up internationally from beaches and inland waterways as part of the annual International Coastal Cleanup in 2010. This number includes more than one million from the United States alone, underscoring the fact that cigarette butts play a major role in polluting the already taxed environment.
According to the new research, cigarette butts have potentially toxic effects on ecosystems, for example, in one laboratory test, one cigarette butt soaked in a liter of water was lethal to half of the fish exposed. Some other new research findings include:
Poison centers report hundreds of cases of cigarette butt consumption among children under 6 years old, with some cases of moderate toxicity due to nicotine poisoning.
Tobacco products are the single largest type of litter collected along US roadways and on beaches.
Tobacco industry research reveals that there might be misconceptions that cigarette filters are readily biodegradable or inconsequential as litter. However, in reality, even under ideal conditions, cigarette butts can take years to degrade, merely breaking up into small particles of plastic, toxic waste.
Cigarette litter clean-up costs can be substantial to local authorities.
"This special supplement brings together the currently known science about cigarette butt waste and sets the stage for a new research agenda – one focused both on preserving our environment and protecting our public health," said Cheryl G. Healton, DrPH, President and CEO of Legacy. "Cigarette butts comprise approximately 38 percent of all collected litter items from roads and streets—the carcinogenic chemicals that they contain make their use the leading cause of preventable death worldwide, yet they are commonly, unconsciously, and inexcusably dumped by the trillions (5.6 and counting) into the global environment each year."
Tobacco litter is not only an eyesore, but clean-up costs to cities can be substantial. An economic study based on a litter audit in San Francisco, California, found the clean-up cost to be more than $5.6 million annually. In an effort to reduce that cost, the San Francisco City Council imposed a 20 cent per pack "litter fee" on cigarettes sold in the city in 2009.
Additionally, there is growing momentum in cities, counties and municipalities to pass laws keeping cigarettes out of parks and beaches. As of April 1, 2011, 507 municipalities across the country have prohibited smoking in their parks and 105 have passed laws prohibiting smoking on public beaches in an effort to reduce the impact that cigarette butt waste has on their communities.
"It's a common assumption that since tobacco is organic, its waste is harmless. However, both the plastic filters and the remnants of tobacco are poisonous to children and other living organisms, as this research confirms. These waste products contain nicotine, heavy metals, and other toxic chemicals that leach into the environment," said Tom Novotny, Professor of Global Health in the Graduate School of Public Health at San Diego State University. "We applaud those communities who have already taken action to stop this problem and hope that through this new research we can strengthen awareness with consumers, environmental advocates, researchers and even the tobacco industry itself."
Cigarette filters/butts have become the last socially acceptable form of littering in the increasingly health and environmentally conscious world. For more information on the environmental impact of cigarettes visit: www.legacyforhealth.org/buttreally.
Legacy is dedicated to building a world where young people reject tobacco and anyone can quit. Located in Washington, D.C., the national public health organization helps American live longer, healthier lives. Legacy develops programs that address the health effects of tobacco use, especially among vulnerable populations disproportionately affected by the toll of tobacco, through grants, technical assistance and training, partnerships, youth activism, and counter-marketing and grassroots marketing campaigns. The foundation's programs include truth®, a national youth smoking prevention campaign that has been cited as having contributed to significant declines in youth smoking; EX®, an innovative public health program designed to speak to smokers in their own language and change the way they approach quitting; and research initiatives exploring the causes, consequences and approaches to reducing tobacco use. The American Legacy Foundation was created as a result of the November 1998 Master Settlement Agreement (MSA) reached between attorneys general from 46 states, five U.S. territories and the tobacco industry. Visit www.legacyforhealth.org.