For public health advocates, the problem of commercial tobacco product waste may pale in comparison with the huge toll of sickness and death caused by tobacco use. By ignoring it, however, we are missing an opportunity to combine the evidence of both the human and the environmental devastation caused by tobacco to make an even stronger case for  achieving the tobacco “endgame”—ending the sale and use of commercial tobacco products altogether.

Tobacco product waste is a toxic pollutant that causes environmental and health harms long after consumption. Big Tobacco has known for a while that its customers are growing concerned about the environmental impact of the products they buy. Rather than responding by making products that are less damaging to the environment, they resort to “greenwashing”—a tactic they use to appear as good stewards of the environment. Research demonstrates the tobacco industry’s environmental commitment is simply a marketing tactic that slows effective policies.

Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) policies and the tobacco industry

EPR seeks to make responsible parties internalize pollution costs. EPR policies typically: (1) require the producer to “take back” the products or their packaging after consumption; (2) place waste management costs on the producer; or (3) set waste management requirements, such as requiring re-use of the products or increasing recycling rates of the products.1 This structure is appealing because it would make the polluting industry bear the cost of its pollution.

EPR systems rely on industries to find solutions for dangerous wastes they create.

Unfortunately, tobacco companies have a history of deception and racketeering. Take, for example, the cigarette waste with the greatest environmental impact—the plastic filter. When creating the filter, tobacco companies encountered the “filter problem:” a filter couldn’t filter out the harmful components of the smoke without also filtering out the elements that made the cigarette “satisfying” to smoke—tar, nicotine, and combustion gases. The industry therefore made the filter only appear like it filtered out toxins, but it had no discernable health benefit. In fact, filters appear to cause a more harmful form of lung cancer. Now the “filter problem” has taken on additional meaning—specifically, 4.5 trillion of them are discarded every year, causing harm to marine environments, poisoning animals that eat them, and creating toxic litter.

It is no simple matter to apply the EPR approach to one of the most deceptive and deadly industries in the world. Many communities simply don’t have the resources to develop, operate, and enforce a functioning EPR system, let alone one overseeing the litigious and well-resourced tobacco industry.

EPR is an ill-fitting policy for addressing commercial tobacco product waste

While EPR is a good tool for some industries and products, like pharmaceutical take-back programs, it is inappropriate for cigarette butts, leftover nicotine liquid, or the dangerous e-waste associated with new commercial tobacco products.

First, a necessary component to an EPR framework is identifying the products that should be covered, a step called “product selection.” This process generally involves analyzing the product’s utility. With tobacco products, however, there simply is no social benefit to their continued production.

Second, EPR generally strives to make companies and products better, so that they and society can thrive. Making commercial tobacco products less environmentally harmful is a near impossibility. More than six trillion cigarettes are produced annually. Any new biodegradable eco-filter will still require massive inputs of material and energy to produce. Further, the cigarettes still contain thousands of carcinogenic chemicals, and any eco-filter will still absorb those chemicals and leach them into the environment.

Third, tobacco product waste is so deadly that some of it is already regulated as hazardous waste and requires compliance with various laws, which can be costly. New products such as e-cigarettes, or heated cigarette products like IQOS, will increase the overall supply of e-waste. It is most likely impossible to create any e-cigarette without a battery, poisonous liquid, and metals and plastics joined in small devices, each of which cannot be recycled or disposed of responsibly. The industry could potentially leverage a poorly drafted EPR law to avoid complying with these increasingly important hazardous waste disposal laws.2

Prohibiting commercial tobacco products ends their waste, and their impact on public health

A simpler and undeniably more effective policy would be to prohibit the sale of commercial tobacco products. Preventing waste generation is far cheaper and more beneficial to society than managing avoidable waste. Eliminating the sale—and therefore the source—of the waste also has the added public health benefit of limiting access to tobacco products which results in lower use in the community. Sales restrictions on certain tobacco products have been successfully pursued throughout the U.S. and abroad. In California, cities like Beverly Hills and Manhattan Beach have led the way by prohibiting the sale of commercial tobacco products from nearly all retailers, a policy that will likely have a marked impact on reducing tobacco product waste and improving public health.

Ending commercial tobacco waste is a health equity issue

Like all negative effects of the commercial tobacco epidemic, tobacco product waste, and its damage, is most significant in the areas where it is sold and consumed. So communities targeted by the tobacco industry are the most harmed by the industry’s end-product pollution.

This waste has a direct impact on neighborhood pollution and mental health, and disproportionately impacts people of low socioeconomic status. The solution for these communities is not to fill their neighborhoods with updated versions of the same pollution.

If the endgame for commercial tobacco control is to reduce the prevalence of tobacco product use, considering the environmental impact of the products themselves is a necessary component of any endgame strategy.

1 Note that the term “EPR” as used in this commentary is distinct from programs that impose a fee on the producer (advance disposal fee).
2 This doesn’t mean that a well-thought-out EPR policy couldn’t work, but any support the industry has for these programs should at the very least raise concerns.

Posted by Center staff attorneys Kai Hill and Hudson Kingston
June 30, 2020