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.”

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.

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.

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.

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Planet or Plastic? Takes Comprehensive Approach to Tackling Major Environmental Crisis, Encompassing Storytelling, Consumer Education & Engagement, Scientific Research, and Innovative Partnerships

TODAY National Geographic is launching Planet or Plastic?, a multiyear initiative aimed at raising awareness of this challenge and reducing the amount of single-use plastic that enters in the world’s oceans. Doing so will not only benefit the thousands to potentially millions of marine animals that become entangled in, suffocated by, or ingest plastic each year, but will also contribute to the overall health of the planet’s marine ecosystems and all who rely upon them.

As a global brand with a rich history of scientific discovery and exploration, National Geographic is uniquely positioned to tackle this crisis in a way that only National Geographic can — through storytelling and science. The Planet or Plastic? initiative will leverage the power of National Geographic’s media portfolio around the world and the expertise of National Geographic’s explorers and scientists who are witnessing firsthand the devastating impacts of this crisis. This organization-wide effort will include a major research and scientific initiative; a consumer education and engagement campaign; updated internal corporate sustainability commitments; and innovative partnerships with like-minded corporations and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) from all over the world.

Today’s launch is tied to the release of the June issue of National Geographic magazine, which takes an in-depth look at the role single-use plastics play in our society and the impact they are having on our environment. Starting with this issue, National Geographic announced that it will begin wrapping the U.S., U.K. and India subscriber editions of the magazine in paper instead of plastic, with the goal of wrapping all global editions in paper by the end of 2019. The June issue is available online at natgeo.com/planetorplastic on May 16 and on print newsstands on May 29.

Each year, 9 million tons of plastic waste ends up in the ocean. Some estimates suggest this plastic could remain in marine environments for 450 years or longer, and the problem is only getting worse. Addressing a challenge of this magnitude requires an unprecedented approach. In concert with the release of the June magazine, the Planet or Plastic? initiative will also kick off with the following:

  • PLANET OR PLASTIC? PLEDGE: Starting today, National Geographic will ask audiences around the world to take the Planet or Plastic? pledge, a commitment to reduce their use of single-use plastic. By taking the pledge, individuals will become part of a global community working together to stem the tide of single-use plastic polluting the ocean and will continue to receive information and tips to help them in their efforts. The pledge marks the beginning of a comprehensive consumer awareness and engagement campaign that National Geographic will execute across its multiple platforms in the months and years to come. Elements of this campaign will range from inspiring and informative content, ongoing consumer engagement activities, events and more.
  • SCIENTIFIC RESEARCH AND DOCUMENTATION: The nonprofit National Geographic Society will embark on a journey to better document how plastic travels from source to sea and to fill critical knowledge gaps. Starting with an initial expedition in 2019 to study the type and flow of plastic in a river system, National Geographic will provide science-based, actionable information to help local and national governments, NGOs, businesses and the public more effectively invest in and implement innovative solutions. The Society is also sourcing solutions to the challenge of plastic waste through an existing Reducing Marine Plastic Pollution Request for Proposal (RFP).
  • THREE-DAY SOCIAL TAKEOVER: National Geographic will use the power and reach of its platforms to educate people about the impact of single-use plastic and to encourage them to take the pledge. For the next three days, National Geographic will “pollute” its Instagram feed, @natgeo, with photos of the plastics crisis as well as animated Instagram stories to highlight the true impact of humanity’s pollution of the natural world. Today, @natgeo will feature photos taken by photographer Randy Olson, who traveled around the world to document the plastics crisis and is featured in the June issue of the magazine. On Thursday, May 17, actress and singer Zooey Deschanel (“New Girl,” She & Him), co-founder of The Farm Project, which recently commissioned the series, Your Food’s Roots, will curate National Geographic’s Instagram account, posting photos of the plastic crisis. On Friday, May 18, National Geographic’s photographers will be posting their own photos of the crisis. Also on Friday, Kathryn Kellogg, a writer and public speaker who lives a “zero-waste” lifestyle and focuses on the dangers of plastic pollution, will host a Reddit AMA (Ask Me Anything) about small, actionable eco-friendly steps that people can take in their everyday lives. Kellogg, who is featured in the June issue of National Geographic, has fit all of the trash that she has generated at home in the last two years into a 16-ounce jar.
  • INTERNAL COMMITMENT: Finally, National Geographic will be taking steps to reduce its own reliance on single-use plastics. Starting with the June issue and moving forward, those who subscribe to the U.S., U.K. and India editions of National Geographic magazine will receive their issues wrapped in paper instead of plastic. This change will save more than 2.5 million single-use plastic bags every month. By the end of 2019, all global editions will be wrapped in paper instead of plastic. This is just one of many steps National Geographic is taking to reduce its own single-use plastic consumption. Over the next month, National Geographic will initiate a third-party audit of its single-use plastic use and will develop a timeline and action plan to further minimize single-use plastics in the workplace.

“For 130 years, National Geographic has documented the stories of our planet, providing audiences around the world with a window into the earth’s breathtaking beauty as well as to the threats it faces,” said Gary E. Knell, CEO of National Geographic Partners. “Each and every day, our explorers, researchers and photographers in the field witness firsthand the devastating impact of single-use plastic on our oceans, and the situation is becoming increasingly dire. Through the Planet or Plastic? initiative, we will share the stories of this growing crisis, work to address it through the latest science and research, and educate audiences around the world about how to eliminate single-use plastics and prevent them from making their way into our oceans.”

Added Jonathan Baillie, the National Geographic Society’s chief scientist and senior vice president, science and exploration: “By harnessing National Geographic’s scientific expertise, we intend to pinpoint activities on land, particularly near rivers, that contribute to the flow of plastics polluting our oceans — and then use what we learn to inspire change at home and around the world. A crisis of this enormity requires solutions at scale, and National Geographic is uniquely qualified to amass the best in research, technology, education and storytelling to effect meaningful change.”

See also: The Story Behind that Viral Seahorse Photo

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