Act now on cigarette filters, vapes, plastic

Cigarette filters have been called one of the “deadliest frauds in the history of human civilisation, says the writer.

Cigarette filters have been called one of the “deadliest frauds in the history of human civilisation, says the writer.

Published Apr 30, 2024


Sharon Nyatsanza

Cigarette filters are among the most littered plastic items on earth, with an astonishing 4.5 trillion cigarette butts littered on streets and beaches each year worldwide.

It is also expensive to clean up the cigarette butts. In South Africa alone, it costs an estimated $117 million (R2.2 billion) annually to clean up, a cost shouldered by the taxpayer. This not only drains the already strained public resources but also harms the environment, wildlife, and marine ecosystems.

E-cigarettes or vapes are not ecofriendly either. In addition to contributing to e-waste like batteries, and lithium, disposable e-cigarettes are made from non-biodegradable plastics and have been identified as a growing plastic pollution problem. The UK, France, and Germany have all initiated plans to implement a total ban on disposable e-cigarettes while Ireland has restricted their sale as an environmental measure.

As the world grapples with the plastic pollution crisis, the ongoing fourth session of the Plastic Treaty, Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee (INC-4) meeting in Ottawa, Canada, which ends today, presented an opportunity to address these overlooked threats.

Cigarette filters have been called one of the “deadliest frauds in the history of human civilisation” (Prof Robert Proctor, US historian). Although marketed as a way to reduce the harms of smoking, filters have been shown to be ineffective in reducing the harms of tobacco, which has been acknowledged by tobacco industry scientists since the 1960s. Quite the opposite, filters increase the harms of smoking by causing smokers to inhale toxic smoke more deeply into the lungs.

At the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC) 10th Conference of the Parties (COP10), Inger Andersen, executive director of the UN Environment Programme (Unep), expressed Unep’s readiness to implement relevant decisions adopted at COP10. This included integrating the FCTC into the global environmental agenda, particularly in ongoing negotiations for the UN Treaty to End Plastic Pollution.

The INC-4 must take decisive action by banning both cigarette filters, and disposable e-cigarettes, the World Health Organization (WHO), and government agencies in Belgium and Netherlands have called for such a ban.

The 2019 Ban the Butt South Africa campaign called for elimination of filters, and a shift of the full burden of the management and disposal of cigarette waste to the tobacco industries.

As part of the WHO FCTC COP10, South Africa adopted a decision recognising “that plastic cigarette filters are unnecessary, avoidable and problematic, single-use plastics that are widely spread in the environment, killing micro-organisms and marine life, as well as polluting oceans”. It is important for the South African delegation at the INC-4 and all parties to the WHO FCTC to remain consistent and align with the COP 10 decision on environmental protection.

Unep’s Zero Draft contains promising recommendations, including a proposal to ban or phase out problematic single-use plastics. As negotiations play out, South Africa must step up and push for decisive action including the listing of cigarette filters and disposable e-cigarettes as problematic single-use plastics in the Plastic Treaty.

To push for the alignment of the Plastic Treaty with the WHO FCTC, at the INC-4 ongoing negotiations, Panama has called for the inclusion of the WHO FCTC in the preamble of the Plastics Treaty. Delegates must also push for the protection of the treaty negotiations from vested corporate interests including the tobacco industry and chemical industries which produce cigarette filters.

Dr Sharon Nyatsanza is the deputy director of the National Council Against Smoking.

The INC-4 should not be a missed opportunity. Delegates must “choose nature over destruction” and act decisively. With plastic production projected to triple by 2060, time is not on our side. They should not leave behind cigarette butts and disposable vapes in the global effort to end plastic pollution, our health and that of future generations depends on it.

* Dr Nyatsanza is the Deputy Director of the National Council Against Smoking

Cape Times

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