Even in the midst of a fierce anti-smoking furor that’s swept American society in the past couple decades, there’s one aspect of smoking’s negative health consequences that’s largely escaped critical scrutiny: the environmental impact of flinging cigarette butts willy-nilly in the street when a smoke is finished. Even smokers who would shame litter bugs for ditching a wrapper or water bottle on the ground may not think twice before dropping a cigarette butt to the curb.
“Cigarette butts remains one of the only socially acceptable forms of littering left,” declares a new campaign by the anti-smoking group American Legacy Foundation. Now, the organization is aiming to get people to “rethink butts” as toxic waste, with a set of bilingual public service YouTube videos made in collaboration with the environmental group Leave No Trace.
Their video opens with an animation of what appears to be some kind of post-apocalyptic chemical plant, oozing and leaking filth into some already disgusting body of water. “Toxic chemicals and carcinogens are leaching into the environment,” the voiceover narrations begins. “It’s happening right where we live, work, and play: Everywhere.”
As the camera zooms out, there’s a reveal: the polluting factory is actually a cigarette butt, abandoned in the street.
You’re response may be–so what’s the big deal? But according to the campaign, cigarette butts make up the number one source of litter nationwide and do not biodegrade naturally. More than a million are retrieved during beach-cleanups every year, where chemicals seep into aquatic ecosystems and become toxic to fish.
But despite the problem, 75% of smokers report that they’ve littered with cigarette butts.