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Cigarette Smokers Are In Denial About Their Butts

Many tell themselves tossing them on the ground will do no harm, even if they should know better.

Cigarette Smokers Are In Denial About Their Butts

4.5 trillion cigarette butts are tossed every year.

Photo: G Tipene via Shutterstock

A new survey digs into what smokers think about their butts. The survey was commissioned by V2, an electronic cigarette company, so you may want to take the results with a puff of smoke, but the results are certainly interesting and give some insight into a littering problem that sees 1.7 billion pounds of cigarette butts discarded every year.

Smokers were asked first how they dispose of their butts and then what damage, if any, they thought the discarded butts did to the environment. When asked if they agreed with the statement that "cigarette butts are toxic," 84% of respondents said yes, they did. Despite the irony of smokers voluntarily sucking on tobacco smoke while they consider the toxicity of the leftovers, this is an important point. According to a 2011 study published in the BMJ’s journal Tobacco Control, 4.5 trillion butts are tossed every year, worldwide, and they are indeed toxic. The LC50 (lethal concentration that kills 50% of animals in tests) is as little as five butts per liter of water.

Cigarette butts are the most common form of litter in the world, as approximately 5.6 trillion cigarettes are smoked every year worldwide. Cigarette waste constitutes an estimated 30% of the total litter (by count) on US shorelines, waterways and on land (LitterFreePlanet, 2009). In fact, cigarette butts are the most common debris item collected along waterways during the Ocean Conservancy's yearly International Coastal Cleanup.

Next up, 44% of the 872 respondents said that butts are biodegradable. They’re not, because they contain plastics, but the perception is there. "The core of the butt can take anywhere from 18 months to 10 years to decompose," says the National Geographic’s Brian Clark Howard. "During that time, the cigarette filters are full of tar, nicotine, and other toxins that can leach into the ground, potentially affecting any organism that comes into contact with them."

Armed with this knowledge, the fact that almost half of smokers thinking that butts are biodegradable is worrying. This misconception might have some role in the next statistic: 25% of smokers throw their butts in the ground, and of these, 62% do it "every time." That is, 15.5% of all smokers toss every butt they smoke on the ground. Many said there weren't cigarette receptacles nearby and some were afraid of starting a fire.

PozitivStudija via Shutterstock

At the same time, 79% of respondents agree that dropping cigarette butts counts as littering. That they drop them despite this shows that they’re either callous monsters, or that they just don’t think a little butt will do that much harm. This is a perfect example of how we trivialize our own actions, forgetting that they add up across the billions of people on the planet. It’s what makes people think it’s okay to run the faucet for a couple minutes while they brush their teeth, or to tumble-dry a load of laundry on a sunny day, or to drink bottled water.

The combined effects of cigarette butts are huge. Those 1.69 billion pounds of discarded butts make their way into waterways, and into the oceans, from where they poison marine life, and are washed back onto beaches.

The problem could get worse. The global consumption of manufactured filtered cigarettes currently stands at 5.6 trillion, and is expected to rise to nine trillion by 2025.

But electronic cigarettes aren’t the answer either. Those things are like K-Cups for nicotine. There are recycling programs in place, but are vapers any more likely than smokers to dispose of their leftovers responsibly? Plus, those discarded cartridges are themselves made from plastic, and loaded with traces of similarly nasty residues. Perhaps publicizing the results of this survey wasn’t such a great idea from V2 after all.

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