Cigarette Butts are Plastic and Compound the Nicotine Health Risk from Smoking

by Dr. Sandra Curtis

Cigarette butts continue to be the number one item collected in shoreline cleanups worldwide. The numbers are dramatic.

". . . As in previous years, cigarette butts—which contain plastic filters—topped the list at approximately 2.4 million collected," said Nicholas Mallos, director of Ocean Conservancy's Trash Free Seas® program. "Over the years, we have seen plastics creeping into the top-ten list, displacing items like rope, beverage cans, and paper bags. But this is the first year that all ten of the top-ten items collected are made of plastic. Given that plastic production is rising, this could be the start of a long and troubling trend."

 Source: Ocean Conservancy

Source: Ocean Conservancy

The European Environment Agency (EEA) released new data about litter found specifically on Europe's beaches. Based on nearly 700,000 collected items, disposable plastics are the biggest contributor to marine litter, with cigarette butts and filters being the most commonly found individual items.

image2.png

Cigarette filters are made of non-biodegradable cellulose acetate from cutting, forming, and polishing sheets of plastic. Trillions of these add-ons to cigarettes (4.5 trillion) are discarded annually. The environmental toxicity of cigarette butts on fish has been demonstrated. The butts take up to 15 years to disintegrate. Similar to the fiberglass insulation used in attics, the filters keep fingers cool while smokers efficiently deliver nicotine to their brain and heart within three seconds.

Where did cigarette butts come from? Curiously, filters were invented by the tobacco industry as a ploy to improve the damning research on the hazardous health effects of smoking. Responding to evidence of a link between lung diseases and smoking in the 1950's, the tobacco companies began promoting filtered cigarettes as a "safer" alternative.  

In 1952, the Kent Micronite cigarettes had a filter that sucked particles out of the smoke but the Micronite contained asbestos fibers that were far more dangerous than tobacco smoke. Philip Morris promised that an antifreeze chemical (diethylene glycol) in the mouthpiece would take "the FEAR out of smoking." And DuPont scientists tried to trap harmful particles with new fabrics, including Dacron, the same polyester that allowed for wrinkle-free pantsuits.

By the 1960s, filtered cigarettes dominated the market, however, since the nicotine delivery of these filtered cigarettes was less, smokers began inhaling longer and deeper to get the same nicotine hit.  

An accompanying change in lung cancer diagnoses from smoking developed with the advent of filters. The incidence of adenocarcinoma (AC) increased much more rapidly than squamous cell carcinoma (SCC) in both men and women. The reason for this increase is due to the filter's ventilation action by: 1) altering tobacco combustion, thereby increasing smoke toxicants; 2) allowing for elasticity of use so that smokers inhale more smoke to maintain their nicotine intake; and 3) causing a false perception of lower health risk from "lighter" smoke.

A similar marketing ploy has been used by the tobacco companies to promote e-cigarettes, publicizing them as a means to safer smoking.

A similar marketing ploy has been used by the tobacco companies to promote e-cigarettes, publicizing them as a means to safer smoking. This past Feb., the first study documenting the long-term health damage from e-cigarettes was released. The results showed that smoking these supposedly safer alternatives actually double the risk of heart attacks with daily use.  

"E-cigarettes are widely promoted as a smoking cessation aid, but for most people, they actually make it harder to quit smoking, so most people end up as so-called 'dual users' who keep smoking while using e-cigarettes," said pioneering tobacco researcher, Dr. Stanton Glantz. "The new study shows that the risks compound. Someone who continues to smoke daily while using e-cigarettes daily has an increased risk of a heart attack by a factor of five.

image4.png

Instead of getting smokers to switch from conventional cigarettes to e-cigarettes or quitting altogether as had been the hope of some scientists and policymakers, e-cigarettes have been reducing the likelihood that people will quit smoking, while expanding the nicotine market by attracting more youth to start.

Use by high school and middle-school students is on the rise.  "Vaping" is now the most popular form of tobacco use among teenagers in the U.S. E-cigarette use rose by 900 percent among high school students from 2011 to 2015. In 2016, over 2 million middle and high school students had tried e-cigarettes. For those aged 18 to 24 years, 40 percent of vapers had not been smokers before using the device. The U. S. Surgeon General issued a specific report on youth and e-cigarettes in 2016.

From an environmental perspective, e-cigarettes are not yet showing up in quantities like cigarette butts during beach cleanups.  Last year Ocean Conservancy showed 4 data points in their annual survey - 2 from the U. S. and 2 from the U.K.  Nick Mallos, Director, Trash Free Seas® Program recently shared his opinion that "we'll see more and more of these devices in years to come as folk's transition from traditional cigarettes to e-distribution." He noted they can track them during this year's Cleanup and preliminary data would be available later in Nov./Dec.

Several components of e-cigarettes are plastic and designed to be disposable, like the cartomizer that comes preloaded with e-liquid. The cartomizer consists of a metal or plastic casing which houses a single of dual coil atomizer wrapped in a generous roll of polyfill (more plastic) material that absorbs the e-liquid. Cartomizers were originally designed as disposables but can be refilled and used several times. For financial reasons, most companies discourage refilling. Other parts to the e-cigarette are either plastic, glass, or metal which will eventually end up in the waste stream.

Recent research warns that e-cigarettes are a potential source of exposure to toxic metals like Chromium (Cr), Nickel (Ni) and Lead (Pb) as well as other metals that are toxic when inhaled – Magnesium (Mn) and Zinc (Zn).   

Given the statistics of increased use, and more research studies being conducted, it is highly likely that growing health challenges and environmental impacts from e-cigarettes will surface.

Read the facts on plastic pollution.

Join our global Coalition.