The environmental argument for banning menthol cigarettes

The environmental argument for banning menthol cigarettes

Everyyear, about 45,000,000,000 cigarette butts get discarded worldwide, making them the most discarded item . Around 90 percent of cigarettes have filters made of a biobased plastic called cellulose acetate, which can take up to 14 years to decompose. Nevertheless, cigarette butts are still considered hazardous solid waste, even if they are thrown away properly.

In recent years, non-menthol cigarettes have become less common ,, but menthol cigarette usage did not decrease or change significantly. As a result, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recently proposed a ban on menthol in cigarettes and other characterizing flavors other than tobacco in cigars to reduce cigarette use, pushing menthol cigarette users to stop smoking.

A ban on menthol such as this could reduce health disparities, since vulnerable populations are more likely to smoke menthol cigarettes. Almost 40 percent of smokers across the country prefer menthol over non-menthol cigarettes. Still, this preference is disproportionately high among Black people, socioeconomically disadvantaged populations, lesbian, gay, and bisexual individuals, and those with mental health problems. Menthol cigarette smoking is also a common habit among youth of racial/ethnic minorities.

Although the FDA intended to reduce disease and death from cigarette use, research shows that a menthol ban can also benefit the environment.

Fewer smokers mean less cigarette litter

According to a Tobacco Control letter, adopting the FDA’s menthol ban would offer substantial environmental benefits because it would reduce 3.8 billion cigarette litter annually.

This has worked in Canada. The country started banning menthol cigarettes from 2015 to 2018, leading many smokers to quit. To estimate the effect of a similar ban in the US on menthol cigarettes, the authors used the quit rate for Canada’s ban. They then multiplied it by 11.9, the average daily number of cigarettes smoked among US adult menthol smokers, and by 365 to get the yearly reduction of cigarettes smoked–5.8 billion.

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“We multiplied 5.8 billion total fewer cigarettes smoked per year after the ban by the published estimate that 65 percent of cigarettes are littered in the US,” says Lorraine V. Craig, dissemination manager of the International Tobacco Control (ITC) Policy Evaluation Project at the University of Waterloo in Canada who was involved in the study. “This led to our estimate that the proposed US ban on menthol cigarettes would result in 3.8 billion fewer cigarettes being discarded each year .”

If each cigarette butt weighs about 0.2 grams, 3.8 billion fewer cigarette butts off the streets and beaches will reduce 755,502 kilograms of waste every year. That is equivalent to the amount of plastic waste produced by about 7114 Americans yearly, given that the average American generates about 106.2 kilograms of plastic waste annually.

Tobacco harms the environment throughout its life cycle

Smoking cessation is known to lower the risk of premature death and cardiovascular diseases. However, policies to reduce tobacco use will not only bring down the economic and public health costs associated with smoking. According to the authors, they may also reduce the environmental harm of tobacco across its entire life cycle.

Cigarettes pollute land, water and air during tobacco cultivation, production and use, and the disposal of packaging and cigarette butts. About 600 million trees are chopped down to clear land for tobacco crops, and 24 billion tons of water are required to make cigarettes. Meanwhile, the production and consumption of tobacco contribute 84 million tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere every year.

“Carcinogenic chemicals and toxic heavy metals such as lead and arsenic are commonly found in cigarettes and can leach into waterways and the soil,” says John Hocevar, director of the oceans campaign for Greenpeace USA, who was not involved in the study. “Once plastic microfibers [from filters] enter waterways, they act as magnets for polychlorinated biphenyls and other toxic chemicals, which bind to the fibers and make them even more dangerous.”

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Animals such as whales, oysters, or corals can also inhale large amounts of microplastics. He adds that they will not only be affected by the toxic chemicals but will also have a harder time meeting their nutritional requirements.

” If cigarettes cause such widespread and multifaceted destruction to the environment, then tobacco controls policies that reduce smoking would have an equal benefit to the environment by reducing the devastation,” Craig says.

Controlling cigarette use ultimately benefits the environment

Eliminating harmful chemicals from tobacco production could make cigarette waste less hazardous, but it would not prevent plastic microfibers from entering the environment, says Hocevar. It’s better for the environment if governments can regulate cigarette use.

“The study calls attention to the problem of cigarette butts as a leading source of plastic pollution and the potential for menthol bans to reduce single-use plastics,” says Geoffrey T. Fong, principal investigator of the International Tobacco Control (ITC) Policy Evaluation Project at the University of Waterloo in Canada who was involved in the Tobacco Control study.

Policymakers can reduce cigarette litter further by vigorously implementing tobacco control policies of the World Health Organization (WHO) Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, the global tobacco control treaty, says Fong. The treaty obligates countries to reduce tobacco use by requiring disclosure of ingredients and putting prominent graphic health warnings on tobacco products.

Policy action to ban the sale of filtered cigarettes may also be an effective measure to reduce single-use plastic pollution, says Fong.

“Any policy which reduces the number smokers will lead to a reduction in cigarette litter,” he says. It’s like killing two birds with one stone. Or, to put it another way, it’s a win-win situation. Strong tobacco control policies reduce smoking and lower environmental damage .”

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