Smoking ritual costing economy $73 million a year

  • Between 5.9 and 8.9 billion billion butts are littered in Australia each year

  • There are calls to make producers pay for the clean-up

  • Tobacco industry argue behavioural change key to fixing issue

Experts have backed a call to end cigarette butt pollution by making manufacturers pay for the clean-up.

They argue attempts at educating smokers to stop the "ritual" of stamping out cigarettes on the ground or flicking them into the gutter have not worked.

The dirty practice, copied from Hollywood movies and television, can be as behaviourally ingrained as bringing a cigarette to the lips, campaigners say.

It's costing the economy an estimated $73 million a year.

Cigarette butts are the most littered item in Australia. Source: Getty - File Image
Cigarette butts are the most littered item in Australia. Source: Getty - File Image

A WWF-Australia report found that short of banning plastic cigarette filters, the only option which would have a high impact on the problem would be a stewardship program.

The plan, which echoes moves to hold soft drink manufacturers accountable for plastic bottle waste, would shift the massive clean-up cost from taxpayers on to producers.

Cigarette butts take years to break down

Experts from the University of Queensland (UQ) looked at the impact of cigarette filters which are made from a bioplastic called cellulose acetate.

Research has found that once in the environment, the butts impact a number of organisms, and have been found in the stomachs of fish, birds, turtles and whales.

While tiny, they are the most littered object in Australia, causing the Federal Government to set up a taskforce to investigate the issue as part of its National Plastics Plan 2021.

Once littered, toxins from cigarettes can leach into the environment. Source: Getty - File Image
Once littered, toxins from cigarettes can leach into the environment. Source: Getty - File Image

It's estimated that nearly half of the 17.7 billion cigarettes smoked in Australia each year could be inappropriately discarded.

Once smoked the filters contain heavy metals and tar which can then leach into the environment.

Despite cigarette butts being technically biodegradable, the process is “very slow”, according to UQ’s Professor William Clarke.

Speaking with Yahoo News, he said it’s “surprising” that a wider range of materials haven’t been developed which have less impact on the environment.

Tobacco industry says 'behavioural change' key

Australia’s tobacco industry is dominated by three corporations, British American Tobacco (BAT), Philip Morris International (PMI) and Imperial Tobacco.

While Imperial Tobacco did not respond to questions from Yahoo News Australia, both BAT and PMI issued statements saying they are working to fight the environmental damage caused by their products.

PMI did not respond directly to a question about stewardship, but said it is working to achieve a 50 per cent reduction in litter from its products by 2025.

“To address this we are taking a systematic approach to the issue of littered cigarette butts,” a spokesperson said.

“This involves analysing the causes, identifying littering hotspots, driving behavioural change, providing equipment for proper disposal, and raising awareness of the issue.”

BAT echoed PMI’s notion that public-awareness initiatives are an effective way to tackling the issues.

"What is clear is that the only proven way to deal with cigarette butt litter is for consumers to dispose of their filters correctly,” a BAT spokesperson said.

“If disposed of correctly by the consumer, the filters can then be directed to incineration nationally or internationally, or in some cases, be a tiny mass sent to landfill.”

Consumer change will not fix urgent cigarette issue, experts say

While the tobacco has long shouldered the responsibility of littering on consumers, UQ’s experts wrote in The Conversation that this strategy has not worked.

“Given the amount of cigarettes that continue to be littered, it’s clear these strategies on their own have been ineffective,” they said.

One of article's authors, Associate Professor Coral Gartner is working to make Australia smoke-free in her position as Director of the NHMRC Centre of Research Excellence on Achieving the Tobacco Endgame.

She told Yahoo News Australia education alone will not stop many of the country’s 2.3 million smokers wanting to stub their cigarettes out on the ground.

Grinding the butt into the ground has become “part of the ritual” for many smokers, and it’s impact is something that needs to be addressed “as a matter of urgency”.

“(Smokers) are not going to just put it in their pocket and then take it to the bin,” she said.

“When people are doing a behaviour multiple times a day, every day for many years, it is very difficult to change that behaviour.

“Many people who smoke find it very difficult to quit because it's got the chemical addiction, but it's also got that behavioural aspect, it's something that's part of their day.”

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