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Tobacco industry to blame for polluted waterways and death of marine life

01 May 2019

Cigarette butts, which filter tobacco smoke, became popular in the 1950s, when lung cancer scares first arose, promoted by the tobacco companies as a safer form of smoking. They were used as a marketing tool, designed to keep and recruit smokers as consumers of these hazardous products even after Big Tobacco knew full well that filters do nothing to reduce the lethal risk of smoking. Almost all cigarettes nowadays have filters, and filters equals butts.

Walk down any street in the UK and the chances are that you’ll be treading on cigarette butts. They are the most littered item in the world and in the UK alone it is estimated that 122 tonnes of smoking-related litter is dropped every single day. Many of those cigarette butts will end up down drains and eventually find their way into our oceans and waterways, posing a major threat to marine wildlife.

Many individuals and businesses may be moving away from using single-use plastic, including plastic water bottles, shopping bags and forks/knives. However, most people don’t realise the significant part cigarette butts play in turning our oceans into a toxic soup.

A survey by Keep Britain Tidy last year found that less than half of smokers know that cigarettes contain plastic. Meanwhile one in ten smokers do not consider cigarettes to be litter and another one in ten believe that they are biodegradable.

Where does this lack of understanding stem from? This is yet another example of the tobacco industry failing to be transparent about its products, leading to widespread damage and loss of life. The fact is that cigarette butts do contain plastic and they are far from biodegradable, taking up to 15 years to break down and wreaking environmental havoc in the process. Conveniently, tobacco companies do not make this information known.

Cigarette filters also contain a cocktail of harmful chemical ingredients including arsenic, lead and nicotine that pollute our waterways. One cigarette butt left to soak in water for 96 hours will release enough toxins to kill half of the salt or fresh water fish that are exposed to it. Meanwhile the toxins contained in the tobacco residue seriously endanger the animals that ingest them too, often proving fatal. Birds and small animals swallow the butts after mistaking them for food, resulting in poisoning, malnutrition and death.

The tobacco industry’s environmental impact is far-reaching, but not widely known and tobacco companies must be held accountable for the toxic pollution their products cause. To mark No Smoking Day, ASH Wales commissioned Welsh artist Nathan Wyburn to create a portrait of Sir David Attenborough made from cigarette butts collected on Welsh beaches. Picking up cigarette butts is only a short term fix, however it is a very small step towards raising awareness of what has become a very big problem.

The next meeting of the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control in 2020 will be presented with the latest scientific evidence on cigarette filters. It’s crucial this evidence doesn’t just cover the impact of cigarette filters on smokers, but also the impact of cigarette butts on the environment. Cigarette filters don’t reduce risks to smokers, and the butts they leave behind damage the environment, so what are they for?

Blog by ASH Wales