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Monday May 24 1:37 PM ET

Cigarette butts cause environmental pollution

NEW YORK, May 24 (Reuters Health) -- Worldwide, smokers toss at least 4.5 trillion cigarette butts each year -- litter that causes significant environmental harm, US researchers report.

In their study, published in the Spring 1999 issue of the journal Tobacco Control, they call for better enforcement of laws against littering to reduce the environmental impact of cigarette butts, additional taxes on tobacco products to go towards clean-up efforts, and more effort on the part of tobacco companies to reduce packaging waste and educate consumers about the impact of tobacco waste on the environment.

The average cigarette butt ``contains numerous chemicals which may be considered health hazards,'' according to co-authors Dr. Thomas Novotny of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta, Georgia, and Dr. Feng Zhao of the Johns Hopkins School of Hygiene and Public Health in Baltimore, Maryland.

The researchers note that ``smokers may not consider that a cigarette butt is litter, but these waste products seem to be ubiquitous.'' Butts are often cast onto the sidewalk, where they often end up in drains and then out to lakes and seas. While the paper and tobacco of cigarette butts are biodegradable, their cellulose acetate filters are not, according to the report.

Novotny and Zhao examined data from two leading US environmental organizations -- the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Center for Marine Conservation (CMC).

They found that ``for the past 8 years, cigarette butts have been the leading item found during the (CMC's) International Coastal Cleanup Project,'' accounting for nearly one in every five items collected.

Discarded cigarette butts in ashtrays can also pose a serious health risk to children, according to the researchers. They note that ``in 1994-1995, the Rhode Island Department of Health identified 40 cases of cigarette butt ingestion among children aged 6 to 24 months... 13 of the cases of ingestion produced symptoms such as vomiting, gagging and lethargy.''

Novotny and Zhao recommend that the tobacco industry be held at least ``partly accountable'' for the environmental impact of tobacco-related litter. ``The tobacco industry should improve the biodegradability of filters, reduce packaging waste, and educate its customers,'' they say. Special taxes might also be added to the price of cigarettes to fund environmental clean-up efforts, according to the authors. Finally, they believe that all worksites and public buildings should reduce cigarette littering by supplying ashtrays and other ``disposal mechanisms'' at building entrances.

SOURCE: Tobacco Control 1999;8:75-80.

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