Interview with Researcher: Tobacco Product Waste—Contaminants, Sources, Impacts 

San Diego State University tobacco control researcher, Dr. Thomas Novotny, recently collaborated with colleagues to review the science behind what we know about the impacts of tobacco product waste on human health and our environment. Their review, entitled A Review of Environmental Pollution from the Use and Disposal of Cigarettes and Electronic Cigarettes: Contaminants, Sources, and Impacts, was published in the peer-reviewed journal Sustainability. While tobacco product waste is not thirdhand smoke, the cigarette butts and electronic cigarette waste that litter our streets, parks, and playgrounds share some characteristics with thirdhand smoke. Like thirdhand smoke, tobacco product waste contains chemicals that are harmful to humans and animals and the waste remains in the environment long after it is discarded. We sat down with Dr. Novotny to learn more about this exciting work. Here are some excerpts from our conversation. 

February 8, 2023

By Avery Crosley

Avery Crosley: I know you started your career as a physician, but can you tell us about yourself and your research interests regarding cigarette butts? 

Thomas Novotny: In about 2011, I founded the Cigarette Butt Project, which is an NGO. We tried to join advocacy and science on this issue to really mobilize environmental concerns beyond just tobacco. Then, we set out to promote behavioral change in terms of its main effort to get people to quit smoking and to try to look at the policy issues related to tobacco and the environment. So, I studied the toxicity of tobacco products, and the economic cost of it [tobacco product waste] to communities. We’re working on the economic cost of tobacco product waste in the environment—somebody has to clean it up. The industry doesn’t pay for it [litter] and smokers basically don’t either. And so that’s something that we can actually put some scientific effort into with, I think, the intention of holding the tobacco industry accountable.  We still have 8 million smokers or so, and still billions of cigarettes that are sold each year that end up in the environment. 

Avery Crosley: So, we are talking about a review article about the science behind cigarette butts. What were you trying to accomplish with this review? And why is it important now?

Thomas Novotny: Well, the goal was to try to bring as much of what’s known about tobacco product waste—not just cigarettes, but also e-cigarettes and smokeless tobacco for which there are some issues like discarded, smokeless tobacco pods, for instance. But nevertheless, this was an attempt to really try to bring so much of that research together in a place where it can be accessible for people to understand what the whole perspective on the chemical contamination, the physical contamination, and the plastic issues and all of these things that I’ve mentioned briefly, and to have it in one thoroughly researched document. 

Avery Crosley: What did you find out about the research regarding cigarette butts, tobacco pollution, and the environment?  

Thomas Novotny: What we found is that it takes one cigarette butt in a liter of water to kill half the fish, and that’s known as the lethal dose. We’ve also done some studies on e-cigarettes (vapes), gathering them up from different places in the Bay Area. The important thing to consider there is that the EPA has designated E-cigarette waste as a toxic hazardous waste product that must be handled as such. We’ve got other studies where we actually isolated and tried to identify what the chemicals were the leachate. What we find is that nicotine is of course, one of the main ones, is actually a plant pesticide that is toxic to people in higher doses. But it’s also a very addictive drug which is what sells cigarettes. But nevertheless, that plus heavy metals and also carcinogens that are known to cause cancer [are in the leachate]. 

There’s, I think, 50 [carcinogens] in cigarettes, part of the 7,000 chemicals that are in tobacco products. And so, we know that these things leach, out of the tobacco product waste whether it’s cigarettes or e-cigarettes, and the additional hazard of e-cigarettes, is that they have the lithium ion batteries and these are also hazardous, as well. The electronics and the other kinds of stuff that are in them that don’t, of course, don’t biodegrade, either. It’s a broad range of different kinds of research that we’re trying to bring together, especially in our new Center. And we hope that it’ll do some good, in terms of reducing tobacco use, as we publish these results. 

Avery Crosley: What do you hope people will take away from this conversation? 

Thomas Novotny: I think one of the first important steps is to make sure that this information becomes available and publicized.  I think over the last 10 years more people realized the implications of this, especially groups such as the environmental groups, like Surfrider and Coast Keeper and Sierra Club. I think the important thing from that is to move towards policy change. 

There’s improved enforcement and application of laws related to waste. And here, it’s a delicate issue, because you don’t want to be just busting people. What we hope is through signage and public information that we will restrict smoking in public places, and littering can be more self-enforcing through social change, social, modification and that’s important. I do think that the laws are important.  

I’m going to just give you one more point on that: The tobacco industry has funded a number of environmental groups, such as the Ocean Conservancy, Natu­­r­­e Conservancy, Keep America Beautiful. They [the tobacco industry] are all about cleaning up the environment—that is picking up the tobacco industry waste product at the expense of either volunteers or community, or taxpayers or communities that think that is the answer. That’s not the answer, because not only can you not pick up all of the trillions of cigarettes that are dumped into the environment globally, you’re not changing the exposure— I mean it’s going to just continue. No matter how many [cigarette butts] you pick up, it’s just going to continue to collect. Surfers go out every month on the beaches and they collect thousands of cigarette butts. Every month. Does that do any good? No, it has to be done at a more upstream level, and I think that’s what policymakers need to understand—or if they really want to do something about this project. 

Click here to read the research study.

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