Despite industry messaging to the contrary, cigarette filters don’t help to reduce the dangers of smoking. What’s more, due to the numbers discarded as litter, used filters cause major environmental problems. In this piece, based on their recent Industry Watch paper published in Tobacco Control, Karen Evans-Reeves, Kathrin Lauber and Rosemary Hiscock of the Tobacco Control Research Group at the University of Bath share their latest research on ‘filter fraud’ and explain why current measures to reduce health and environmental impacts don’t go far enough.
Filters increase harm to smokers
Across the globe, more than 90% of the cigarettes sold have a filter.
Most smokers believe that filters make their cigarettes safer by ‘filtering’ out the nasties when, in fact, it’s the opposite. Filters increase the toxic constituents of cigarette smoke and lead to smoke going deeper within the lungs to reach cells more prone to cancer.
Modern filters were introduced in the 1950s after consumers first heard that cigarettes caused cancer. The purpose of filters was to reassure and retain smokers who might otherwise have quit. Filters made cigarette smoke more palatable, and this, accompanied by massive marketing campaigns, led smokers to believe that filters made smoking less harmful. The whole debacle has since been referred to as “the deadliest fraud in the history of human civilisation.”
Seven decades later, despite their failure to protect smokers’ health, filters are still permitted. And the industry continues to make innovations to its filters, which attract consumer attention and serve to reassure smokers that filters are protective.
Filters harm the environment
The problems with filters extend far beyond health. Cigarette butts are amongst the top ten most common plastics found in our world’s oceans, with 4.5 trillion cigarette butts deposited into the environment every year.
Most modern-day filters contain cellulose acetate, a plastic which takes two years to break down just a third of its mass. Both plastics and chemicals from discarded cigarette butts leach into the environment and our waterways.
Legislation has failed to address the filter fraud
Tobacco packaging in the UK is standardised to prevent misperceptions of the relative harm of one tobacco product over another. However, filters are not adequately addressed in this legislation and so tobacco companies have exploited this and other loopholes, continuing to release versions of their most popular brands with new filters.
Similarly, the EU’s Directive on single-use plastics offered an excellent opportunity to reduce the amount of toxic plastic waste from tobacco products. An early draft suggested that tobacco companies reduce the amount of plastic they produce by 50% by 2025 and 80% by 2030. This was rejected in favour of companies contributing towards the clean-up of cigarette butts and placing messages on packs informing consumers that there are plastics in its products. Current UK estimates suggest that clean-ups cost local authorities £40 million per year. The Environment Bill, currently progressing through Parliament, will make tobacco companies cover these costs.
What can we do to protect public health and the environment?
In July 2021 the Department for Health and Social Care intends to publish an updated Tobacco Control Plan.
The Environment Bill’s solution to take the enormous burden of clean-up costs away from local authorities and give it to the companies who make profits in the billions every year (e.g. Philip Morris International made $19bn gross profit in 2020), is a smart move.
However, giving the practical responsibility for clean-up to tobacco companies has the potential to be misused in three ways:
- They could portray their actions as corporate social responsibility (CSR) – implying they are part of a responsible industry when they kill one in two of their users and non-smokers via second-hand smoke.
- It could give them more visibility and the opportunity to provide branded clean-up items.
It gives them an opportunity to engage with local governments, developing relationships with officials which will generate conflicts of interest with spill-over effects for public health policy.
Past engagement of the tobacco industry in clean-up campaigns has had little impact on litter – whereas reducing the number of people who smoke does.
There are similar risks if we push tobacco companies into producing biodegradable filters, as some have suggested. Biodegradable filters provide a CSR opportunity but will not solve the filters’ carcinogenic properties, prevent toxins leaking into the environment nor lead to more quitting. Biodegradable filters will enable the filter fraud to continue. Not only will cigarettes still include filters enabling smoke to be inhaled more deeply, but conceivably consumers will perceive them as even less harmful if they no longer contain plastic.
We need to build on the pioneering work by Dr Tom Novotny and others, who found that knowledge of the detrimental health and environmental effects of filters was not as good as it could be amongst the tobacco control community, and facilitate a conversation about the merits of banning the butts for good.