‘Toxic ticking time bomb’: plastic pollution from cigarettes costs US$26 billion a year, study finds

“Countries are making progress in developing plastics policies, particularly banning single-use ones, but the costs of tobacco’s plastic pollution are overlooked,” study author Deborah Sy wrote in an article published in peer-reviewed journal Tobacco Control on Tuesday.

“Efforts to reduce plastic pollution should address cigarette filters as toxic, widespread and preventable sources of marine pollution. Countries may develop specific estimates of waste management and ecosystem costs in order to assign tobacco industry accountability for this pollution.”

Cigarette filters contain microplastic fibres and toxic chemicals. Photo: K. Y. Cheng

Cigarette butts are among the most littered items in the world, and the second biggest form of plastic pollution. Filters are commonly put in cigarettes but research has shown that they do not reduce the harms from smoking.

The World Health Organization has called on policymakers to treat cigarette filters as single-use plastics and consider banning them to protect public health and the environment.

The filter is deemed hazardous waste because it contains microplastic fibres and hundreds of toxic chemicals including nicotine and heavy metals such as lead, arsenic and cadmium.

“Cigarette butts aren’t just litter; they’re a toxic ticking time bomb for our environment,” said Sy, the head of global public policy and strategy at GGTC.

“All of these contaminate the water and pose a threat to aquatic life, including marine animals which may ingest the same. We also see this happening on land when birds mistake cigarette butts for food.”

According to the WHO, China is the world’s largest tobacco producer and consumer with more than 300 million smokers – nearly one-third of the global total. More than 1 million people in China die each year – or 3,000 deaths a day – from diseases caused by tobacco use such as cancer or lung and heart disease.

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The WHO has also said that cleaning up littered tobacco products costs China about US$2.6 billion every year.

Sy said China had a “relatively high” rate of plastic leakage, referring to the percentage of plastics that reach the aquatic environment and eventually the oceans.

She said a conservative estimate of 20 per cent was given for the country’s contribution to the global cost due to conflicting data on how many commercial cigarettes have plastic filters in China.

“This should give us an indication as to how much the major producer, China Tobacco, should be paying in order to offset these costs,” she said, adding that tobacco companies should take financial responsibility for the environmental impact of their products.

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“Although [the pollution cost of cigarette butts] is nothing compared to the astronomical health costs and economic losses from tobacco-induced diseases, it prompts further research and at the same time, sets a minimum amount that each country should be collecting from the polluter,” Sy said.

“If collected from the tobacco industry, this amount can be used to clean up the coasts, replace the tobacco industry’s greenwashing activities with independent and effective campaigns that align with the tobacco control treaty,” she said, referring to the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control.

“Nevertheless, countries should not lose sight of the fact that a longer-term solution is to address the source: to eliminate the problematic and avoidable single-use plastic by immediately banning the same.”

South China Morning Post

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