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When even the butt pollutes

Tobacco use continues to be a major contributor to the global burden of disease, causing an estimated 12 per cent of deaths worldwide among people below 30 years of age.


Tobacco use continues to be a major contributor to the global burden of disease, causing an estimated 12 per cent of deaths worldwide among people below 30 years of age. Annually, tobacco kills 8 million people around the world, including 1.2 million non-smokers who are exposed to second-hand smoke. India is the second-largest country in the world in terms of consumption of tobacco and therefore faces substantial tobacco-related mortality and morbidity encumbrance. 

But the hazards of tobacco are not limited to individual human beings and people around. Tobacco throughout its lifecycle adulterates not only the individuals and their health but also communities and the environment. And therefore, what is at stake is the fate of the entire planet. Taking into account the serious ill impact of tobacco, this year, the theme of ‘World No Tobacco Day 2022’ marked earlier this week is “Protect the environment.” This is to bring the attention of policymakers and other stakeholders to this threat to our environment. This also aims to expose the tobacco industries’ tactics to greenwash their reputation by promoting themselves as environmentally friendly. 

This paper attempts to explore the atrocious and widespread impact of tobacco from an environmental perspective. The tobacco industry damages the environment in several ways that go far beyond the effects of the direct smoke that comes into the air. The explicit incorporation of tobacco reduction as a specific target in the UN Sustainable Development Goals (Target 3A) makes it copiously clear that it poses a substantial risk for sustainable global development. The tobacco crop is water-intensive and the use of large quantities of fertilizers and pesticides in tobacco growing eventually degrades the land and pollutes water bodies. It is also responsible for huge amounts of deforestation and creating large quantities of solid waste which is non-biodegradable and an environmental burden. 

Cigarette butts or filters are the most littered item on the earth. An estimated 5.6 trillion cigarettes are smoked each year, out of which two-thirds are improperly disposed of. And this amounts to 30 to 40 per cent of all litter found in coastal and urban litter clean-ups. Cigarette butts are composed of cellulose acetate fibres which take years to disappear from the environment. Cellulose acetate fibres, like other microplastics, are a common contaminant found throughout the world’s ecosystems, even accumulating in the deep sea- bed. We find plenty of this eyesore in our streets, parks, beaches and in our waterways. Used butts contain harmful chemicals that can kill plants, insects, rodents, fungus and other lifeforms. There are reports revealing young children, pets and other animals accidentally swallowing cigarette butts, and they’ve even been found in wild animals such as seabirds and turtles. 

Research conducted by the Indian Institute of Technology Roorkee also explained that cigarette butts have plastic fibres (cellulose acetate) that are non-biodegradable, wrapping paper and rayon. The National Centre for Biotechnology Information (NCBI) reports that butts have shown only 37.8 per cent degradation in two years in soil under ambient conditions (NCBI Report 2015). The report also provides that around 31 lakh butts contribute to the daily litter of Bengaluru, making the water and soil toxic. These littered cigarette butts carry chemicals such as arsenic, lead, mercury and cobalt which contaminate water. The World Health Organization (WHO) has reported that long term exposure to arsenic causes cancer and skin lesions. 

A few years ago, research from San Diego State University and Avalon Economics estimated the annual cost of handling tobacco waste products from cigarette butts to e-cigarette cartridges at $90,000,000. Recently, San Francisco projected the annual cost of clearing up tobacco waste at $22 million and the United Kingdom at £ 140 million.

France ordered the tobacco industry to take voluntary action to help curb cigarette butts from littering the streets and contaminating water or face mandatory legislation. The European Union issued a directive for the reduction of the impact of plastic products on the environment by including cigarette butts under Extended Producers Responsibility (EPR) and proposing incentives to develop less-polluting alternatives. Tobacco industries are engaged in aggressive marketing of their products in low- and middle-income countries and 90 per cent of tobacco production is concentrated in these regions. There- fore, these regions have the highest environmental burden. 

In India, the principal bench of the National Green Tribunal (NGT) in 2020 directed the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) to frame guidelines for the disposal of cigarette/bidi butts in the interest of the environment within three months but no progress is made yet. 

India did not have a specific legal regime to stop littering and fix- ing extended producer’s liability and product stewardship. The Supreme Court prohibited smoking in public places in Murli S. Deora v Union of India (2001) by holding that exposure of non-smokers in public places to smoke is a violation of their ‘Right to Life’ without any process of law. Though directions given by the Supreme Court become law of the land, due to a lack of proper implementation mechanism its impact is not very effective. 

Now, this has now been addressed to a large extent by the new Consumer Protection Act, 2019 (CPA) which offers a comprehensive regime for a product liability action. Manufacturers, distributors and sellers of tobacco products may now be held accountable for the entire lifecycle of the product, including take-back, recycling, and final disposal of the product. Tobacco manufacturers if made accountable will definitely include this post-consumer plastic waste management/disposal cost in the production cost which means that the smoker will have to pay marginally more for the product. An increase in price will further reduce the demand but incidentally support the environment. 

The Government of India recently proposed draft rules for EPR, which would make a manufacturer responsible for managing post-consumer plastic waste. There are scientific reasons for cigarette and bidi litters to be covered under the EPR scheme, to hold manufacturers responsible and assign accountability. However, enactment of a ‘litter law’ as prevalent in some American States involving local or state enforcement agencies will be more effective to reduce this problem. This will strengthen the implementation of Article 5.3 of the WHO FCTC (Framework Convention on Tobacco Control) Treaty within India’s constitutional system which places the environment on a very high pedestal. 

(The writer is a Professor of Law, National Law University Odisha)