Tobacco product waste is a major cause of environmental pollution. States and localities are increasingly grappling with the issue of tobacco product waste and seeking solutions, including legislative and policy changes. Cigarette butts are the most commonly littered item in the world, as 850,000 tons of cigarette butts end up as litter annually worldwide  -- thirty times the weight of the Statue of Liberty. Cigarette butts are made of cellulose acetate, a type of plastic that is not biodegradable. The toxic substances found within used cigarette butts make them hazardous waste. As they break down, cigarette butts leach chemicals, heavy metals, and microplastics into the environment. These substances can disrupt ecosystems, as they inhibit plant growth.

Cigarette butts are falsely marketed as “filters,” but they do not improve health outcomes for smokers. In fact, studies show that cigarette butts actually increase the negative health impacts of smoking. For instance, a 2014 Surgeon General’s report found that “filters” increased risk of lung cancer because smokers inhaled more forcefully and drew the carcinogenic smoke more deeply into their lungs. A 2017 study from the National Cancer Institute recommended that the FDA should regulate the use of filters, “up to and including a ban.” The notion that cigarette butts “filter” harmful substances and make smoking a safer experience is not rooted in science, rather it illustrates the tobacco industry’s successful misinformation campaign.

Electronic cigarettes, also known as “e-cigarettes” and “vapes,” are no kinder to the environment; in fact, they qualify as both hazardous and electronic waste. Many e-cigarettes contain lithium batteries that are prone to explosions and fires when mishandled. E-cigarettes also leach microplastics and toxins, including highly concentrated amounts of liquid nicotine (“e-juice”). Despite this reality, most e-cigarettes end up in the regular trash because they are marketed as “disposable.” Due to the youth vaping epidemic, schools accumulate large amounts of e-devices, then face difficulties in trying to dispose of them properly. Collecting large amounts of e-devices can also inadvertently trigger potential violations of EPA regulations regarding hazardous waste.

State and local governments are looking for ways to tackle the issue of tobacco product waste. In 2020, New York State Senator Liz Krueger (D, WF, 28th Senate district) introduced the Tobacco Product Waste Reduction Act into the state senate, although the bill did not progress at that time. It was reintroduced during the 2021-2022 session, and was most recently reintroduced as Senate Bill S3063, during the 2023-2024 legislative session. The bill is currently in the Senate Health Committee, but no further action has been taken. The Act would prohibit the sale of cigarettes using single-use filters (cigarette butts), as well as ban the sale of single-use electronic cigarettes. The Act would be codified as an additional section of Article 13F of the Public Health Law in New York State. Passing the Act would be an important step in reducing tobacco product waste in New York State. It would also help combat the tobacco pandemic because it would remove the false pretense that cigarette "filters" protect users.

Another proposed bill in the New York state senate, the Drug Take Back Act (S5209), would amend the state’s public health law to include single-use and reusable electronic cigarettes in the state’s drug takeback program. This would allow consumers to dispose of these devices in medication drop off boxes, instead of throwing them in the trash. Although this is a downstream solution that would not reduce the amount of tobacco product waste being generated, it would keep some of these devices out of the environment.

In California, a bill was introduced in 2019 that would have banned single-use tobacco products and would have required manufacturers to implement take-back programs and pay for recycling of recyclable components. The bill did not advance as the legislature at that time was only focusing on bills related to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Awareness of tobacco product waste and its negative impacts is increasing around the world. In 2021, France imposed an 80 million fee on tobacco companies to make them pay for the cost of cleaning up cigarette butts. The United Kingdom is looking into making tobacco companies pay the £40 million cost of addressing cigarette butt litter. Earlier this year, a new law came into effect in Spain which requires tobacco companies to assume the cost of removing cigarette butt litter (although the companies are expected to pass this cost on to the consumer). In 2016, India banned plastic packaging of tobacco products.

As tobacco product waste continues to pollute and disrupt ecosystems around the world, comprehensive solutions should be considered, including banning these products altogether. State and local governments in the U.S. can learn from successful examples worldwide when seeking to implement policies that safeguard the environment from the harms of tobacco product waste pollution.

For more information and resources on tobacco product waste, visit the Public Health Law Center’s web page on tobacco pollution.

Zohal Khan, Staff Attorney
August 22, 2023