Butt really? The environmental impact of cigarettes

Are cigarette butts more than just an unsightly litter problem? Do the chemicals leached out of them just ‘go away’—biodegraded and diluted by our streams, rivers and oceans so that we can forget about them? This special supplement of Tobacco Control brings together the currently known science about cigarette butt waste and sets the stage for a new research agenda that can unite the tobacco control community with environmental activists who have long been appalled by the single most commonly collected waste item found each year on beach clean-ups.

In addition, butts are also reported to comprise an estimated 25–50 percent of all collected litter items from roads and streets—making them a concern for the quality of urban life.

Cigarette butts contain all the carcinogenic chemicals, pesticides, and nicotine that make tobacco use the leading cause of preventable death worldwide, yet they are commonly, unconsciously and inexcusably dumped by the trillions (5.6 trillions and counting) into the global environment each year.

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Toxicity of cigarette butts, and their chemical components, to marine and freshwater fish

Cigarette butts are the most common form of litter, as an estimated 4.5 trillion cigarette butts are thrown away every year worldwide. Many chemical products are used during the course of growing tobacco and manufacturing cigarettes, the residues of which may be found in cigarettes prepared for consumption.

Additionally, over 4000 chemicals may also be introduced to the environment via cigarette particulate matter (tar) and mainstream smoke.

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Kicking butts

Cigarettes rank at the top of litter problems -- for their ubiquity, toxicity and durability. Now, finally, Chicago is doing something about it. The city and environmentalists hope a new law banning beach smoking will make a local dent in the nation's most pervasive litter problem

Wearing work gloves, Stephanie Smith stood at North Avenue Beach, ready to take a quick stroll down to the water and back. It had been a few weeks since the city's beaches opened and a new smoking ban had taken effect. So Smith, of the environmental organization Alliance of the Great Lakes, wondered: How many cigarette butts would she find?

One thing is for certain: Smith never waited longer than a quick five-count before finding another butt, or a fistful. Filters were scattered everywhere, from water's edge to inches from new "NO SMOKING" signs adorning the north face of lifeguard stands. At the beach house -- where similar signs were curiously, conspicuously absent -- Smith dumped the contents onto a table. Though damp and in many cases shriveled with age, the butts reeked like an ashtray inhaled at close range. Smith recoiled in disgust.

In all, she collected 137 butts in a few minutes, enough to make her shake her head: "Incredible -- not in a good way."

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