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Tobbaco Control Journal Supplement on Cigarette Butt Waste

n 2011, the Cigarette Butt Pollution Project put together a special supplement to the journal, Tobacco Control, which confirms the toxic impact cigarette butts have on the environment. This research brings together the current science about cigarette butt pollution and sets the stage for a new research and advocacy agenda focused both on preserving the environment and protecting our public health.  Funding for this effort came in part from our partners at the National Cancer Institute (www.cancer.gov), the University of California Tobacco Related Disease Research Program (www.trdrp.org), and Legacy® (www.legacyforhealth.org)

Toxicity Studies

SDSU public health researcher and CBAG Member Richard Gersberg evaluated the effects left-over cigarette butts have on marine life and found that the chemicals from just one filtered cigarette butt had the ability to kill half the fish living in a 1-liter container of water.  Cigarette filters are made of cellulose-acetate, which is not biodegradable.

Standardized test fish (top smelt in salt water, flat-head minnows in fresh water) were used in this study, performed according to standards recommended by the California Department of Toxic Substances Control and was approved by the SDSU Institutional Review Board.

Gersberg’s study used three types of cigarette butts: smoked filtered cigarettes without tobacco; smoked filtered cigarettes with tobacco and clean un-smoked filtered cigarettes. In all cases, about half of the fish were killed with a very low concentration of cigarette butts.  The most important finding in this research is that it seems to be the filter, or rather whats in the left-over filter that is most dangerous to our water,Gersberg said.  The results of this study are now being prepared for publication in a peer-reviewed scientific journal.

In response to these findings, CBAG held a press conference on May 1, 2009, in the Aztec Center to recommend that cigarette butts be considered and regulated as toxic wastes.

Each year, billions of cigarette butts end up on our beaches, and in our oceans, lakes and rivers,said Tom Novotny, chair of CBAG and professor of public health at SDSU. Based on this new research, we believe that cigarettes should be considered toxic waste and new requirements need to be established for how they are disposed.

Tobacco Document Research

Dr. Libby Smith, historian with the UCSF Center for Tobacco Control Research and Education, Vivian Wang (Research Assistant), and Kristin Lum (MS1), have been looking into the previously secret tobacco industry documents housed at the UCSF Library to find out what has been done by the industry regarding cigarette butt litter.  Vivian and Kristin have found that the industry has tried unsuccessfully for years to develop marketable biodegradable filters (for example, made from food starch); these efforts have essentially been abandoned by the industry.


Dr. Smith has found that the industry has sought to understand why smokers discard their butts so carelessly.  She suggests that such research has revealed significant levels of discomfort about smoking addiction among smokers such that they seek to rid themselves of the evidence of their addiction (the butt) as soon as possible.  The industry also appears to understand the potential public relations problems it has with environmental concerns regarding cigarette butt waste.  For example, Phillip Morris became one of the major supporters of the “Keep America Beautiful Campaign” (a non-profit organization [KAB]), which encourages individual responsibility for proper butt disposal and other wastes.


However, some analysts point out that Philip Morris’ interest lies primarily in shifting the responsibility for butt waste to the consumer; KAB’s efforts focus on public education and increasing availability of butt receptacles, including hand held (cigarette brand-logo labeled) ashtrays.

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