After the 1950s, the cigarette began to evolve from being a paper tube with shredded dried tobacco leaf into a product that also included an acetate tow filter. The filtered cigarette was marketed by tobacco companies as a healthier, milder option for the more image and health conscious smoker. Years after such marketing was stripped off billboards and airwaves in most countries, this remnant of the era where tobacco products were heavily advertised to smokers remains and has totally come to dominate the market globally. No more more than a handful countries’ cigarette markets have less than 95% of their sales made up by filtered (instead of unfiltered) cigarettes. The filtered cigarette is an anachronism of the 20th century and has no place in a rationally regulated tobacco market.  What follows is an argument to ban the sale of filtered cigarettes.

Credit: Stanford University Research into Tobacco Advertising; Kent; 2002

Wasted Butts

Filtered cigarettes are the most commonly littered item in the world. In the Environment chapter, we point this out in order to emphasize that tobacco use harms the environment in more ways than you might expect. The primary trouble with filtered cigarette butts is that they don’t decompose in a short period of time. In order to seem like good corporate citizens tobacco companies have for decades supported corporate social responsibility programs aimed at chastising consumers for not properly disposing of cigarette butts. Keep in mind that this program of passing on the responsibility to throw away filtered cigarette butts took place during an era when cigarettes moved from being unfiltered to filtered en masse.  While we know filtered cigarette butts certainly are an environmental nuisance the possibly greater consequence of the existence filtered cigarettes is that they serve as a psychological coping device for continuing smokers.

Coping device? Moral Hazard?

The lessons the tobacco control movement learned during that era marked by the introduction of filtered cigarettes still informs the actions of the policy community today. Tobacco companies initially introduced filtered cigarettes as a healthier option for smokers who were worried about their deteriorating health. While initial bursts of advertising claimed explicitly and implicitly that filtered cigarettes were a healthier option, the market position of filtered cigarettes continued to improve relative to unfiltered cigarettes after such advertising was banned. Even today, in a closely related dynamic of “light” cigarettes, when Chinese smokers were asked whether their own brand of cigarettes is less harmful than others, smokers of “light” cigarette brands were more likely to agree than smokers of “regular” brands (32.6% to 16.1%). When American smokers were given a choice between two filtered and one unfiltered cigarettes, 61.5% identified the unfiltered cigarette as the most dangerous to their health, while just 22.2% provided the correct answer that the presence of a filter made no difference.

Credit: Stanford Research Into Tobacco Advertising; True; 1976

As silly as this photo from 2013 may seem, it underscores the fact that there is a persistent belief among smokers that “light” and filtered cigarettes are healthier, when the scientific evidence continues to reject that notion. The continued existence of filtered cigarettes is a sort of moral hazard, wherein smokers continue consuming filtered cigarettes instead of quitting because they believe they are mitigating their risks to their health, when the consequence of their actions is the opposite. They end up just as sick and die just as often, leaving everyone else to suffer the financial and emotional consequences.

A Small Aside About E-Cigarette Litter

Amelia Howard and Adam Houston, two Canadian doctoral students, recently wrote a blog post pointing out that e-cigarette use had one particular neat advantage over cigarette smoking: it does not produce littered butts in the same manner as tobacco cigarettes. They make a reasonable point here, though it’s more complex than one might imagine. E-cigarettes, especially open tank style systems should not produce much littered waste beyond e-liquid bottles which with the right system could have their own glass bottle deposit system worked out.

However, pod-style e-cigarettes (like their espresso and coffee brethren from Nespresso and Keurig) might produce a rather large amount of plastic and metal e-waste if they are disposed into landfills. There is anecdotal evidence of widely littered Juul and similar pods at schools and universities. While Juul and similar products may be arguably doing less physical short-term harm to the body of its users than a tobacco cigarette, it would better serve the interests of the environment if Juul pods were properly discarded or even recycled. If e-cigarette market trends continue to develop to favor high nicotine concentration pod-style e-cigarettes, then this matter may become of greater concern.

Credit: Reddit user Charrison1811; 2018

The Case to Ban Filters

Filters on cigarettes provide utility in four ways. First, they encourage consumers to rest easier with their choice to smoke because they believe they have taken measures to protect their health, therefore enabling them to continue smoking longer. Second, they enable tobacco companies to console their client’s discomfort with their own smoking habit by providing a purportedly less risky option without overtly admitting as such. Third, they provide a convenient “handle” by which to hold a lit object. Fourth, they prevent tobacco leaf from being sucked into a smoker’s mouth. None of these functions serve the public health and they all only provide utility to tobacco companies.

If we cannot determine any positive benefit to the public health or the environment for the continued existence of filtered cigarettes, then why allow their continued sale?

The Counterarguments

We should anticipate the tobacco industry to make two primary counter arguments on this matter. First, they will say that filters just alter the taste of cigarettes, and that the presence of filters is simply a response to market demand. Second, they will say that smokers will simply begin using plastic cigarette holders to compensate for the lack of filters.

To these arguments, public health advocates can simply respond, “That’s fine with us”. Markets must respond to regulatory policies, and neither of these arguments undermines the basic premise that filters do not serve the interests of protecting the public health. Finally, plastic cigarette holders qualify as tobacco paraphernalia in most jurisdictions and can be subjected to appropriate regulation as well.

So what are we waiting for? Why not advocate for a ban on the sale of filtered cigarettes?

By Alex Liber