Tobacco and the environment: The Single-Use Plastic Directive (Directive (EU) 2019/904)

The life cycle of tobacco is one of the most detrimental factors for both human health and the environment. 

Under Article 18 of the World Health Organization Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, which covers more than 90% of the world population, Parties agree “to have due regard to the protection of the environment and the health of persons in relation to the environment in respect of tobacco cultivation and manufacture within their respective territories”. 

In her keynote speech at the opening of the ninth session of the Conference of Parties to the World Health Organization Framework Convention on tobacco control, held in November 2021, Dr Adriana Blanco Marquizo, Head of the Convention Secretariat emphasised the important parallels between the Framework Convention on Climate Change and the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control: the tobacco epidemic and climate change are both manmade and preventable.

“It is clear”, she said, “that tobacco damages the environment throughout its life cycle, from crop to post-consumer waste, contributing to deforestation, desertification, greenhouse emissions, and plastic contamination.”

Most cigarette butts and other tobacco products’ filters include plastics. Globally, an estimated 4.5 trillion cigarettes butts are thrown away every year. On beaches, together with other plastic objects most commonly thrown away, cigarette butts contribute to the overwhelming 73 % of plastic of all world beach litter. The chemicals leaching from cigarette butts can be lethal to freshwater and marine fish species. 

In the European Union, filtered tobacco products are the second most found single-use plastic items on beaches. Therefore, the plastic strategy of the European Union includes a Directive on the reduction of the impact of certain plastic products on the environment. 

This directive, which entered into force in July 2021, also known as the Single-Use-Plastics Ban, addresses 10 of the most common plastic items found on beaches. Cigarette butts and other tobacco products with filters must have warning labels informing the public of the presence of plastics in the product and their negative environmental impact. The Directive includes the obligation of producers to cover the costs of the litter management clean-up. 

The knock-on effect of the Directive is evident. For years the industry has been trying to prevent legislation requiring it to take responsibility for cigarette waste disposal. They have done so by developing biodegradable filters, creating anti-litter campaigns, and distributing portable and permanent ashtrays, which are covertly a new means of tobacco promotion. Such tactics of the industry are also intended to counteract the increasing social unacceptability of smoking, which helps denormalise tobacco use, and progress towards a tobacco-free world. 

Read the full text of the Directive (EU) 2019/904 of the European Parliament and of the Council of 5 June 2019 on the reduction of the impact of certain plastic products on the environment

To help protect present and future generations, a top priority for the European Network for Smoking and Tobacco Prevention, based in Brussels, is to reduce the prevalence of tobacco use in Europe to less than 5%, by 2040. This objective can only be achieved by the full implementation of the World Health Organization Framework Convention on Tobacco Control. This includes the provision of widespread support for tobacco cessation. Quitting tobacco is good for individual health, good for local communities, and good for the environment: an all-around winner for future generations.

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