Debby Sy and Laurent Huber
In March 2022, the United Nations Environment Assembly (UNEA) mandated the negotiations of a global plastics treaty which is expected to include Single Use Plastics (SUPs), under which cigarette butts have been categorized. The UNEA Resolution encourages broad multi-stakeholder involvement including the private sector. There is no indication that the tobacco industry is excluded from being a stakeholder in the plastics treaty development process, although such a policy would ensure coherence with existing global tobacco control treaty obligations (WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control), the corresponding country practices. Notably, in engaging with the business sector, the United Nations (UN) agencies and programs have consistently excluded tobacco and arms businesses or marked these as “high risk sectors” due to their conflict with the UN Charters’ fundamental human rights goals.
At the national level, over 140 countries have plans to deal with SUPs but only a handful of the over 180 Parties to the WHO FCTC have included cigarette butts or tobacco plastics in their plans, mostly to implement the European Union (EU)’s Single-Use Plastics Directive which adopts the extended producer responsibility (EPR) policy to make tobacco companies pay for managing tobacco product waste and raise awareness about littering and its impact on the environment. However, EPR implementation in some parts of the EU has resulted in undermining tobacco advertising and promotion bans, particularly bans on so-called corporate social responsibility activities (CSR) of the tobacco companies. It has enabled the tobacco industry to partner with governments or to promote itself as a socially responsible actor. Cases of active lobbying by the tobacco industry in the environment sector have also been observed.
Cigarette butts are widely known to be the single most littered item on earth, taking the top billing in the debris list of practically all ocean clean-ups undertaken across the world. It bears stressing that cigarette filters, from which cigarette butts are derived, are deemed a deceptive deadly design feature for giving smokers the false impression of safety, when in fact cigarette filters have been associated with more aggressive forms of lung cancers caused by changes in the toxicants during combustion, increased inhalation of tobacco smoke and plastic fibres falling out of the end of the filter. In addition, cigarette butts contain some of the toxic constituents of tobacco products. According to country and global estimates from Global Center for Good Governance in Tobacco Control (GGTC)’s Tobacco Toxic Plastics page, cigarette butts and the plastics in tobacco packaging cost governments at least USD 1 billion a year in waste management costs and around USD 20 billion a year in loss of marine ecosystem services. Ecosystem services refer to goods people obtain from the marine environment such as food, recreation, tourism and pest control.
As part of its Clean Seas Campaign, WHO and United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) raised awareness of the dangers of the plastics found in the 4.5 trillion cigarette butts littered annually, along with other environmental harms of tobacco, demonstrating how human health is intrinsically linked to planetary health. For World No Tobacco Day 2022, WHO and civil society groups called for a ban on cigarette filters and sought to hold the tobacco industry accountable for the destruction it causes to health and the environment. These calls would be in vain if the negotiations on the global plastics treaty fail to consider that governments across the world have been trying hard to fulfil the objectives of the global tobacco control treaty, despite tobacco industry interference. The Parties to the WHO FCTC are obligated to protect their policies from “commercial and other vested interests of the tobacco industry” (WHO FCTC Article 5.3) accordingly, over 70 countries have adopted policies to exclude the tobacco industry from having a seat at the table or to denormalize tobacco industry’s so-called CSR.
Environmental rights activists and policymakers should be mindful that the noble objectives of any plastics policies, whether at the country or treaty level, must not frustrate such public health objectives. Any measure to address plastics, especially single use plastics, should align with the global tobacco control treaty. Cigarette butts are ubiquitous, toxic, single use plastics that should be banned, and the tobacco companies should be held to account for all the harms caused to health and the environment. The calculations from the GGTC’s Tobacco Toxic Plastics could be a starting point to account for these harms, noting that this could form part of price/tax measures to reduce tobacco use (WHO FCTC Article 6), and could help countries address the liability of the tobacco industry (WHO FCTC Article 19).
On 28th July 2022, the United Nations General Assembly recognized that everyone on the planet has a right to a healthy environment when it adopted a Resolution calling on countries to increase efforts to ensure access to a “clean, healthy and sustainable environment”. The impact of tobacco corporations on the environment is in direct conflict with the aims of this Resolution. Furthermore, given the 8 million deaths caused by its products every year, the tobacco industry is deemed incapable of fulfilling any social good. Under no circumstances should it be treated like other stakeholders in plastics policy development.
Debby Sy, Head of Global Public Policy & Strategies, Global Center for Good Governance in Tobacco Control
Laurent Huber, Executive Director, Action on Smoking & Health