Cigarette firms must deal with their own mess

Our Seas Our Future volunteer Emily Colquhoun picks up cigarette butts and rubbish in Dunedin...
Our Seas Our Future volunteer Emily Colquhoun picks up cigarette butts and rubbish in Dunedin last month. PHOTOS: PETER MCINTOSH/ODT FILES
It is time to hold tobacco companies to account for environmental harms, write Janet Hoek, Richard Edwards and Andrew Waa.

The Otago Daily Times recently (August 31) reported work undertaken by the Our Seas Our Future group, whose volunteers collected about 8000 discarded cigarette butts from the University of Otago and Dunedin Hospital.

Tobacco product waste (TPW), such as cigarette butts, blights our environment and undermines our use and enjoyment of public spaces; yet, aside from small-scale clean-up operations, how can we address this problem?

Global annual consumption of cigarettes now exceeds 5trillion and, once smoked, about 4trillion cigarette butts are discarded as litter. Cigarette filters comprise a plastic called cellulose acetate that takes many years to break down and have high concentrations of toxic chemicals. Discarded butts create serious environmental harms, impose significant clean-up costs on local authorities and should be a serious concern in a country like New Zealand, which continues to promote its "100% pure" tourism identity.

It’s easy to blame people who smoke as responsible for tobacco product waste (TPW) and no-one could argue that littering is appropriate. However, tobacco companies’ solutions promote education, providing more butt bins, and enforcing litter policies, and focus solely on people who smoke.

Discarded butts on a Dunedin street.
Discarded butts on a Dunedin street.
This approach draws on the "personal responsibility" rhetoric that dominated political discourse for more than a decade, plays into the unfortunate "dirty smoker" stereotype, and helps tobacco companies avoid responsibility for manufacturing a defective product than harms people and their environments.

It is time to examine the tobacco industry’s role in creating TPW and its responsibilities for preventing the many harms its products cause.

Tobacco companies introduced cigarette filters in the 1950s and 1960s as a way of reassuring smokers who felt concerned about growing scientific evidence that smoking caused lung cancer and other fatal illnesses. Advertising declared filtered cigarettes were "better for your health" and persuaded smokers to switch to a filtered cigarette rather than quit. These strategies saw the market share of filtered cigarette brands grow very quickly and filtered brands now represent more than 90% of the overall cigarette market.

However, this campaign, like others run by tobacco companies, had no scientific basis. Studies show that filters do not reduce the risk of serious diseases, even though people smoking filtered cigarettes believe they face fewer harms from smoking. Like other deceptive campaigns, such as those positioning "light" and "mild" cigarettes as less harmful than "regular" alternatives, filtered cigarettes mislead smokers about the risks they face. In the face of evidence their products kill people, tobacco companies responded with a product innovation that tricked users into believing they had managed the risks they faced from smoking.

The rapid adoption of filtered cigarettes gave rise to the cigarette butt problem we now face today. Some tobacco companies have responded by contributing to environmental groups that, in turn, organise community clean-ups and install butt litter receptacles. Neither is a viable or effective solution.

Increasing the number of butt bins normalises smoking and, according to observational studies, has limited effect on butt disposal practices. Community clean-ups have a very limited impact, given the ongoing deluge of butts. Nor do these responses address the problem that filters are made of plastic that takes many years to biodegrade, if it biodegrades at all.

These "corporate social responsibility" initiatives position butt disposal as a problem caused by people who smoke, reinforce negative stereotypes of these people, and relocate responsibility away from tobacco companies.

There is a different way to respond to TPW and the threat it poses to our environment and wellbeing. Product stewardship models recognise that tobacco companies continue to manufacture harmful products, despite full knowledge of the impact these products have. This approach argues that cigarette manufacturers should be accountable for their products’ effects on people, animals and the environment.

What does that mean in practice? Rather than blame people who smoke, we could address TPW by requiring tobacco companies to fund the considerable clean-up costs, currently borne by local authorities (and thus ratepayers). For example, New Zealand could adopt a similar stance to the European Parliament, which recently announced plans to require tobacco companies to manage butt litter. Yet while this approach would begin to hold tobacco companies to account and could produce cleaner streets, parks, beaches and waterways, filters would continue to accumulate and the sustained deception of smokers would continue.

Changing the design of cigarettes so these could no longer include filters would eliminate a major source of plastic pollution. Because filters do not reduce the risks of smoking, disallowing their use would not place smokers at greater risk but would bring important environmental benefits.

Tobacco companies have successfully framed people who smoke as both the cause of and solution to TPW, a stance that overlooks their culpability as product manufacturers.

It is time to hold this industry accountable for TPW by requiring them to modify their products so these no longer threaten our environment, and fund comprehensive clean-up operations.

Alongside holding tobacco companies to account, policy measures should continue to foster smoking cessation and decrease smoking uptake.

Achieving the Smokefree Aotearoa goal and eliminating tobacco smoking is the best long-term solution to eliminating TPW, and the misery, ill-health and premature death that smoking has caused for decades.

 - Janet Hoek, Richard Edwards and Andrew Waa are co-directors of ASPIRE 2025, a University of Otago Research Centre.

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