Are unfiltered cigarettes better for the environment?

Experts demand: Researchers demand a ban on filter cigarettes

Around ten billion cigarette butts are thrown away worldwide - every day. The filters in particular pose an immense problem. Experts demand that they should be banned as a measure in the fight against plastic waste. In any case, they would not bring any health benefits.

They can be found on sidewalks, on beaches, in railroad tracks and around bus shelters: cigarette butts are the most common waste product in the world. This is not only problematic because of the toxins contained in the stumps. Most of the filters are made of cellulose acetate, a plastic that is difficult to break down.

Billions of carelessly chipped butts contribute to the growing problem of plastic waste every day. Scientists from London and San Diego are calling for the British Medical Journal to ban the sale of filter cigarettes completely. They argue that the filters are sham pack anyway: used to save tobacco and make people believe they make smoking less harmful.

Filter cigarettes: The safety argument was a fairy tale

In fact, the invention of the filter cigarette in the 1950s was a response by the tobacco industry to studies showing that smoking caused lung cancer. Cigarettes with filters, according to the advertising promise at the time, would absorb part of the tar and thus allow "healthier" smoking.

"We now know that this safety argument was a fairy tale - one of many the tobacco industry invented to sell cigarettes," write Thomas Novotny of San Diego State University and his colleagues at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine in her editorial on this. The filters even lead to smokers pulling harder on a cigarette, so that carcinogens are inhaled deeper into the lung tissue.

Ten billion stubs are thrown away every day

Cigarette butts in an ashtray: they are the most common waste product in the world. (Source: Monika Skolimowska / zb / dpa)

According to a study by the Justus Liebig University in Gießen in 2016, 4.5 trillion of the 5.6 trillion cigarettes smoked annually are improperly disposed of. In 2017, the World Health Organization (WHO) reported that up to two thirds of all cigarette butts land on the floor. With 15 billion glow sticks sold, that's ten billion stubs - every day.

These consist mainly of cellulose acetate, a plastic that is only very slowly biodegraded. It can take up to ten years for a cigarette filter to completely decompose. While fast-food chains are now increasingly being held responsible for producing less plastic waste, the tobacco lobby has succeeded in "avoiding public outrage," said Novotny and colleagues. In her opinion, it must now be a matter of bringing the discussion about the dangers of smoking together with that of global environmental degradation.

Here the authors cite the ban on single-use plastic that the EU has adopted from 2021 on certain plastic items, including plastic cutlery, straws and cotton swabs. "The exclusion of filters from the plastics directive seems to be a missed opportunity," criticize the scientists. Instead, the directive only states in general terms that industry should "help cover the costs of waste management and disposal, data collection and awareness-raising measures".

We're "missing out on the opportunity to end the global tobacco epidemic"

The health researchers conclude their contribution by saying that the tobacco epidemic continues to be a leading cause of death and disease worldwide. "And, like the global warming threat, it will remain so until nations implement innovative interventions." Courageous measures are necessary here, so the plea of ​​the authors, such as a rigorous ban on filter cigarettes.

"Many people have doubted that smoke-free bars, pubs or airplanes would one day be possible," they emphasize. The drastic warnings prescribed today on cigarette packets were once just as unthinkable. Novotny and colleagues warn: "If we fail to reduce the trillion cigarette butts that contribute to global waste pollution every year, we will undermine our efforts to contain global plastic waste and miss the opportunity to end the global tobacco epidemic."

Anyone who thinks that e-cigarettes could be a more environmentally friendly alternative is wrong: They not only produce electronic waste, but also plastic waste thanks to the cartridges and liquid bottles required. The WHO writes: "Disposable cartridges made of plastic could become the cigarette butts of the future." More detailed studies on disposal and additional amounts of waste generated by e-cigarettes are still pending.

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