It's time to ban filters on cigarettes

woman smoking
© Everett Collection

Filters are a scam and are a leading source of plastic pollution worldwide, say experts.

While we fret mightily about single-use straws and plastic forks, people across the globe are nonchalantly tossing their cigarette butts out and few people flinch. As the thinking seems to go, cigarette filters are an irrevocable part of cigarettes since they lessen the damage of smoking tobacco.

But what if filters were just a scam? What if they were dreamed up by tobacco companies to make people think smoking was safer ... and in the meantime, became the single most commonly collected item of litter globally?

Because according to an editorial published in the BMJ, that's exactly what's going on. The authors, Thomas Novotny from San Diego State University and colleagues at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, question why there are so many bans now on single-use plastic products, but none on one of the leading sources of plastic waste: The cigarette butt.

To rewind a bit, we go back to the 1950s when, in the face of the "lung-cancer scare," cigarette companies began investing in the design and marketing of filter-tipped cigarettes. As it turns out, an effective filter was way more complicated than imagined – which makes sense, given the nature of inhaling smoke and all. Nonetheless, the cigarette industry went with the idea, knowing a great marketing tool when they saw one. (For a fascinating look at this history, check out this study by Bradford Harris: The intractable cigarette "filter problem.")

RJ Reynolds went so far as to develop an ingeniously deceptive filter that turned from white to brown as a cigarette was smoked – a ruse to comfort smokers who assumed that the filter was capturing all that deleterious gunk. In a memo outlining his invention, Claude Teague wrote, "While the use of color change materials would probably have little or no effect on the actual efficiency of the filter tip material, the advertising and sales advantages are obvious," (More here, page 21.)

So yeah, a scam. Or as Robert N. Proctor, a professor at Stanford, as well as an expert witness against the tobacco industry, puts it:

"Filters are the deadliest fraud in the history of human civilization. They are put on cigarettes to save on the cost of tobacco and to fool people. They don’t filter at all. In the US, 400 000 people a year die from cigarettes – and those cigarettes almost all have filters.”

So not only are they ineffective, but as Novotny and his colleagues point out, they create a tremendous plastic problem. Most cigarette butts are mostly comprised of a non-biodegradable plastic filter made of cellulose acetate, they explain – and trillions of them are thrown out annually. But the tobacco industry has been diligent in lobbying against the problem. The BMJ authors write:

"The tobacco industry has worked hard to avoid anything that casts cigarettes in a bad light, including distracting attention from the pollution caused by butts. This includes creating downstream anti-litter campaigns in which it could control the messaging."

"Even though the cellulose acetate filter is the single most commonly collected item of litter globally," they continue, "the industry has largely succeeded in avoiding the public outrage expressed towards plastic waste produced by, for example, McDonald’s and Starbucks. Unlike manufacturers of some other polluting post-consumption waste products ... it has never been held accountable for the cost of the waste it generates."

At this point, nobody can think the tobacco industry is "good." Smoking is the leading cause of preventable death, and we have the tobacco industry to thank for that. According to the CDC, cigarette smoking is responsible for more than 480,000 deaths per year in the United States, including more than 41,000 deaths resulting from secondhand smoke exposure. This is equals around 1,300 deaths every day. But couldn't they at least start addressing their plastic problem?

In many ways, we have come far in terms of battling tobacco. The idea of smoke-free bars, restaurants, pubs and even outdoor public spaces would have been unthinkable a few decades ago; as would all the other restrictions placed on cigarettes. The authors say that now may be time for a similar bold approach.

"If we fail to reduce the trillions of butts added to the world’s waste burden annually," they conclude, "we undermine our efforts to curb global plastic waste and miss an opportunity to help end the global tobacco epidemic."

You can read the entire editorial here: "No more butts: Reducing plastic pollution means banning the sale of filtered cigarettes"

It's time to ban filters on cigarettes
Cigarette filters are a scam and are a leading source of plastic pollution worldwide, say experts.

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