13 June 2022
By Irene Reyes
In the May edition of the Tobacco Reporter, one of its editors, George Gay, in an article on tobacco and ENDS products, arguing shared responsibility among regulators, manufacturers, and consumers in minimizing the environmental impact of these products.
The author pointed out the lack of response from the industry to deal with the post-consumption waste of their products, having no plan for a “coordinated industry approach to the issue of carelessly discarded vaping devices.” Instead of insisting on industry liability, he let the industry off the hook easily and quickly pointed the finger to others.
Gay argued that cigarette butts could have been banned years ago and that governments and regulators are at fault for letting this happen. The author conveniently disregarded the documented tactics of the tobacco industry and the great lengths the industry goes to avoid any regulation of its products, even to the extent of filing legal actions against governments who would dare implement strong tobacco control policies.
He further asserted on consumer responsibility, maintaining that consumers have the power to end most of the environmental issues by just ensuring proper disposal of their cigarette butts and discarded electronic smoking devices.
The truth is, after profiting billions of dollars from their deadly, highly addictive, and non-biodegradable products, the tobacco companies would shift the blame of environmental harms on the consumers. Then, as part of its public relations strategy, the industry will sponsor anti-littering campaigns or clean-up programs to build a positive public image of being a good corporate citizen. The industry will not provide any real solutions to this issue and will just put-up a smoke screen to keep misleading the public through tokenistic corporate social responsibility activities or greenwashing.
This diverts attention from the fact that the poor design of their products is one of the main causes of the destruction of the environment. The cigarette filter was the result of a fraudulent industry marketing, meant to entice consumers to keep smoking, under the misconception that it is healthier to smoke filtered cigarettes.
Tobacco product wastes leave behind irreversible harms to the environment. It is estimated that around 4.5 trillion cigarette butts are littered globally each year. Cigarette butts, which are single-use plastics (SUPs), are considered the top-littered item in international coastal cleanups. Cigarette butts further break down into microplastics, which can be ingested by marine animals. In addition, the cartons and packaging from tobacco products leave behind 2 million tons of solid waste annually.
While acknowledging the industry’s responsibility, Gay admits that “we are in an environmental mess”. The advent of ENDS and HTPs bring additional negative impact on the environment due to single-use plastics, metal, batteries, and other residual toxic chemicals.
Several countries have recognized application of Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) for waste management and the prevention of certain types of waste. EPR is an approach where the producers, are given significant responsibility for the treatment and disposal of the post-consumer products. As an example, an additional fee may be imposed on tobacco products to internalize the environmental costs in the retail price, and to recover waste management costs by the government. This is in recognition of the industry’s responsibility for environmental damages and to pay for recovery and proper disposal of waste products. However, the tobacco industry has used its EPR activities to promote itself much like the promotion of so-called CSR activities.
Currently, the responsibility for clean-up of tobacco wastes products is being subsidized by the governments, taxpayers, and the local communities. We need to shift the economic burden and responsibility of the environmental damage back to the true source – the tobacco industry.
In the ASEAN region, it will cost around USD 6.4 billion a year to offset the pollution and waste of more than 531 billion sticks.
The tobacco industry should be held accountable, not only for the harmful effects of its products on our health, but also for the devastating environmental impact it is causing. The WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control requires governments to act to protect the environment and the health of persons in relation to tobacco cultivation and manufacture.