Photo: Let's get serious about cigarette litter - no ifs, ands or butts!

The environmental impacts of cigarette butts are nothing to sneeze at. The toxic butts can be ingested by children and animals, especially birds and marine animals. Tossed cigarette butts are also a major fire risk. (Credit: Len Matthews via Flickr)

By David Suzuki with contributions from Ian Hanington, Communications Manager

Not long ago, dining out, going for a drink, working in an office, riding an airplane or intercity bus and going to a movie meant being subjected to second-hand smoke. Cigarette smoking was a fact of life, and smokers were everywhere — indoors and out.

In many countries, including Canada, that's changed. But it wasn't without a fight. Restaurant and bar owners fretted loudly that regulations to limit smoking would destroy their businesses, and tobacco companies lobbied and launched massive PR campaigns to convince people that smoking wasn't harmful, that new laws were an infringement on smokers' rights and that reducing smoking would devastate the economy.

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Through a combination of public education and government regulation, including taxation, profound societal change took place over a relatively short time. In 1965, half of Canadians smoked. By 2011, that had dropped to about 17.3 per cent, or 4.9-million people, with only about 13.8 per cent daily smokers. Unfortunately the downward trend has levelled off in recent years, and tobacco remains the leading cause of preventable death in Canada, according to researchers at the University of Waterloo. "More than 37,000 Canadians will die prematurely this year due to tobacco use. Each day, 100 Canadians die of a smoking-related illness," the 2013 report, 'Tobacco Use in Canada: Patterns and Trends', says.

With increasing regulation, high cigarette prices driven by "sin taxes" and the current stigma attached to smoking, it's bewildering that people take up the pointless habit in the first place. Smoking prevalence is still highest among young adults, especially those aged 25 to 34, although education is a factor, with smoking rates for university graduates less than half those for people with less education.

I sometimes wonder if it's lack of education that causes many smokers to litter their butts without giving it a second thought. It's astounding how many people who would likely not otherwise drop garbage on the ground see nothing wrong with flicking butts without regard for where they land. It may seem trivial, but it's not.

According to the Surfrider Foundation's Hold on to Your Butt campaign, cigarette butts are the most littered item in the world, with 4.95-trillion tossed onto the ground or water every year. The U.S. spends about $11-billion a year on litter clean-up, and 32 per cent of that is butts. They're washed from the streets into storm drains and rivers and eventually to oceans and are the most prevalent type of debris collected in beach clean-ups around the world.

The environmental impacts are nothing to sneeze at, either. Surfrider notes that cigarette butts are made of "cellulose acetate, a non-biodegradable plastic, which can take up to 25 years to decompose." The toxic butts can be ingested by children and animals, especially birds and marine animals. Tossed cigarette butts are also a major fire risk.

Obviously, the best way to reduce cigarette butt pollution is to step up efforts to prevent people from starting smoking and help those who have to quit. But we aren't going to stop everyone from smoking overnight, so we have to find ways to address the litter problem. Again, a combination of public education and regulation will go a long way.

In San Diego, Surfrider installed outdoor ashcans and gave smokers pocket ashtrays. Many places, including Vancouver, have banned smoking on beaches and in parks. Stepping up enforcement of litter laws also helps. Some people even recommend banning filtered cigarettes or at least requiring filters to be biodegradable, arguing they're more of a marketing ploy than a safety feature. In Vancouver and other cities, some people have been pushing for a deposit-and-return system similar to those for bottles and cans.

Besides reducing litter and environmental damage, methods that also increase the price of cigarettes have proven to be effective in reducing smoking rates.

Some consider tobacco a sacred herb. It's used by many indigenous peoples for ceremonial purposes. With widespread use spurred by marketing, it became a costly and unhealthy addiction and a toxic blight on the environment. Smoking trends in countries like Canada show that societal change is possible and — with education and regulation — people will do what's best for themselves and for the world around them.

August 8, 2013

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Jun 24, 2017
7:06 AM

Self-defence laws need to be expanded. Water doesn’t cause physical harm (well, maybe in winter) and should be legal to use when dealing with disgusting individuals who try to smoke in your presence. Spewing that filth in front of unwilling people should be illegal and subject to heavy fines and assault charges.

Feb 15, 2017
5:41 AM

I debated a whole group of people who were adamant that throwing discarded cigarette butts to the ground is not littering and that its actually their right to do so. How do we go about getting message out to young and old that throwing butts any where and every where you choose is tremendously bad for the environment.

Mar 02, 2016
8:26 AM

It was some good hard facts about littering to be true thanks!

Nov 22, 2015
3:20 PM

Hello, My name is Ruchi Chohan and I have a huge favor to ask. I am requesting a meeting for Grade 8 students as my son along with his 3 friends competed in a Lego robotics competition yesterday and were winners of west Toronto region. They will now be competing at the Provincial level.

The theme of this competition is Trash Trek and the social problem and possible solution that our team is working on is Cigarette Buds.

As part of competition we need to present our solution to companies/people who recycle and can provide feedback about there solution. I was wondering if the kids can be given an opportunity to share there ideas.

I eagerly await your response.



Jul 07, 2015
1:23 PM

If you smoke, it’s your business. If you choose to be irresponsible with the the disposal of your butts, it’s everyone’s business. I think that people should be fined for throwing cigarette butts out their car windows or dropping them on the ground. It’s littering! (And… it can cause fires which cost taxpayers millions, and can be harmful to fish, wildlife, and the environment.) It’s time for the casual dropping of cigarette butts to STOP.

Apr 20, 2015
5:50 PM

I caught a bass last year at Little Lake in Peterborough and went to clean it when I got home and wouldn’t you know there was 2 butts in its belly. I assume the fish thought they were worms or grubs. Made me very upset and I try and hand out flyers and remind smokers please don’t throw your discarded cigarette butts into the sewers they end up in our beautiful lake. Just the other day I watched as a lady flipped out at her son who threw his McDonald’s wrappers to the ground and he said back in a huff as clean it up how you and daddy litter every where you go with your butts. Ironically she said that different and then threw her butt to the side walk below.

Sep 17, 2013
1:57 PM

I just quit after 30 years of smoking. Smokers should be aware that there is a choice respecting filters. I always rolled my own tobacco and used Embassy brand cigarette tubes. The Embassy brand uses cotton for its filters. Cotton is an organic substance that biodegrades in years rather than thousands of years.

Aug 10, 2013
7:47 AM

I fully support the objective of this article on butt litter and am pleased that you’re helping to spread the word. However, I want to address the statement that profound societal change took place “through a combination of public education and government regulation, including taxation.” Governments don’t make societal change happen — people do. This social change has happened relatively quickly (over just a few decades) because of the efforts of thousands of caring citizens, tobacco control advocates, scientists and programmers across the country who have spent countless hours fighting for that change, both professionally and on a volunteer basis. They’re the ones who deserve the credit for making it possible for governments to take action — even though they often do so kicking and screaming.

Aug 09, 2013
10:36 AM

Ban the sale of filter tip cigarettes. If a smoker needs a filter tip they can purchase a reuseable cigarette holder with built-in filter.

Aug 09, 2013
7:54 AM

I wish this self-appointed little dictator would lay off the admonitions to the rest of us for “social change.”

Aug 08, 2013
7:23 PM

It would be hard to take exception to what you’re saying, but if you live in Asia, as I do, it seems hopelessly naive. I would suggest you try walking along any highway, road, dirt track or jungle path in countries like Thailand or India. You will see a quasi-continuous stream of litter on either side of you, plastic, bottles, paper and so on, as well as fly-tipping sites with builders’ rubble. I wish we could say we had a problem with cigarette butts, that would be nice.

Aug 08, 2013
7:11 PM

Ban the filter! That would likely help some people quit smoking

Aug 08, 2013
6:43 PM

Cigarette Butt litter. Have you heard about TerraCycle and how they can recycle the butts among other items. Brigades are set up for the collection so it’s a community/school project basis though an individual can also be involved.

We need collection sites at subway stops, restaurants and bars. Toronto has a terrible problem with people throwing the butts in tree well just after they are planted, toxic waste disposal after spending all that cash on trees and proper planting. Education and communication is a must.

Aug 08, 2013
6:01 PM

Why not make a safer cigerette in the first place. After all it is a plant! Im sure they wouldn’t be half as bad for people, and the enviorment, if it wasnt for all the chemicials they add. Just a thought.

Aug 08, 2013
5:47 PM

Clearly who ever wrote this did not smoke — or they would understand a little more about smokers. Thing is I choose to smoke, I dont drink, I dont eat bad foods so this is my vice. And as to the comment about business impact, anyone seen a bingo hall or a full coffee shop anymore — I dont.

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