Smoking’s Impact on Wildlife – The Overlooked Damage Done by Tobacco

Smoking isn’t just harmful to the smoker. With cigarette butt littering being a huge problem across the world, people are becoming increasingly aware of the negative and harmful effects this can have on wildlife.

Smoking is responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Americans each year, mainly smokers, but also those exposed to cigarette smoke second-hand. As the public gradually learned about the abundant risks of smoking, more and more smokers at least tried to kick the habit. Thanks to educational public health campaigns and interventions like raising the tax on cigarettes, the smoking rate has declined dramatically. Unfortunately, though, around 17% of Americans still smoke, and the harm from smoking stretches further than most smokers realize. Smoking’s impact on wildlife is one of the many sources of harm from smoking, and is one of the most overlooked.

Cigarette Butts: Toxic and Non-Biodegradable

The design of cigarettes means they’ll always generate waste. Smokers consume the tobacco rod from the cigarette, but after each one, the “butt” section must be disposed of. If this is done appropriately and responsibly, the impact of this is drastically reduced. However, it often isn’t.

Despite some misunderstanding among the public, cigarette butts are not biodegradable. They’re composed of cellulose acetate, which can be broken down under the influence of ultra-violet radiation (from the sun), but the actual material making up the butt merely becomes diluted into soils or waters.

Cigarette smoke is a chemical cocktail, and a substantial proportion of the chemicals found in cigarette smoke are toxic to most forms of life. These chemicals find their way into the cigarette butts too, with studies finding chemicals such as cadmium, arsenic, nicotine, several heavy metals and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons in butts.

Cigarette Butt Litter: The Main Source of Smoking’s Impact on Wildlife

It’s estimated that 1.69 billion pounds of cigarette butts becomes litter each year. The scale of this problem is largely responsible for smoking’s impact on wildlife. Estimating the precise amount of cigarette butts that end up as litter is difficult, but the Ocean Conservancy’s annual International Coastal Cleanup brings a lot of attention to the issue by collecting data on the trash recovered from the sea in coastal areas. In 2015, the Ocean Conservancy reported collecting 2,127,666 cigarette butts from around the world, with around half of these being collected in the U.S.. These figures are almost certainly underestimates too.

It’s been estimated that between a quarter and a half of litter collected from roadways and streets in the U.S. is in the form of cigarette butts. Even if it’s just a quarter, this is understandably still a major issue for our environment, particularly because filters don’t biodegrade.

How Cigarette Butt Litter Impacts Wildlife

With toxic, non-biodegradable cigarette butts littering the streets and waters, it shouldn’t be too surprising to learn that it can have serious effects on animal life. This has been studied in more detail for marine life, where studies show that concentrations as low as one cigarette butt per liter of water can be toxic to fish and other evidence demonstrates that they’re toxic to other forms of marine life such as water fleas and marine bacteria.

These animals – particularly the water fleas and bacteria – might not seem too important for smoking’s impact on wildlife, but it should be remembered that ecosystems of animals are interdependent. In other words, an impact on one species will also impact on the species which eat it, and the species it eats. This “knock-on” effect means that even a limited number of species being affected could lead to serious environmental effects.

Despite the risk of land animals ingesting cigarette butts, evidence of this occurring is fairly limited, and mainly confined to pets. There are anecdotal reports of sea turtles and other animals eating cigarette butts, but no more robust evidence that would allow estimation of how common it is.

Deforestation: Another Way Smoking Impacts Wildlife

One final issue that plays a role in smoking’s impact on wildlife is deforestation. Trees are cleared in order to make room for tobacco cultivation, and for “flue-cured” tobacco, the finished crop is dried using burned wood. This not only contributes to climate change by releasing CO2 and removing carbon-absorbing trees, it also removes habitat for wild animals and increases the use of harmful pesticides.

Conclusion – Smoking is Devastating for the Environment

The ways in which smoking impacts the environment are varied and widespread, and solving the problem isn’t easy. Taking steps to reduce cigarette butt litter – including providing more trash cans for cigarette butts and possibly instituting fines for those caught littering – is one step, but the most important step that can be taken is reducing the number of smokers in society. In any case, if we want to protect our wildlife, we need to fight against cigarette butt litter and deforestation due to tobacco cultivation.