Toxic cigarette filters, or “butts,” are the most littered plastic item. They contaminate streets, fields, beaches, and waterways in cities and towns throughout the United States and around the world. This has been the case for decades and no end is in sight, largely because of two widespread misconceptions: that cigarette filters are effective and that they are biodegradable. The tobacco industry has actively and tacitly encouraged both misconceptions, leading average consumers to believe that the cigarette butts they toss on the ground will decompose in the environment. Instead, cigarette filters are made of plastic fibers that break down into microplastics but do not decompose. Worse still, these discarded cigarette butts are laced with toxic chemicals and heavy metals, such as nicotine, cadmium, lead, and chromium.

Prior efforts to address this toxic hazard have often focused on the consumer and have included raising the price of cigarettes to offset the cost of dealing with the disposal of these products. This approach does not address the primary source of the waste and has been met with tax-averse opposition. Maine and New York considered levying a refundable fee upon the return of the used cigarette, but neither state ultimately adopted this measure. In 2009, the City of San Francisco imposed a cigarette litter abatement fee to be paid by the consumer. In response, the tobacco industry dubbed it a tax and successfully pushed for a statewide measure to limit the authority of other localities in California to replicate this policy. Other efforts that focused on banning the sale of single use filtered cigarettes have failed.  While the 2009 Tobacco Control Act (TCA) gives sole authority to the Federal Drug Administration to set tobacco product standards for the benefit of public health, the Act also preserves the power of states and localities to establish tobacco sales restrictions. So far, the FDA has not banned cigarette filters. Unfortunately, any locality or state that bans the sale of these products will face endless and costly resistance from a litigious industry. This can create a chilling effect on related local regulatory efforts.

A New Approach: Litigation

Baltimore has taken a different approach to hold cigarette manufacturers directly responsible for the high costs of the toxic waste they create:  litigation. On November 21, 2022, the Baltimore Mayor and City Council filed a first-of-its-kind lawsuit against six major tobacco companies, including Philip Morris, Altria Group, and R.J. Reynolds. Baltimore seeks redress for the persistent harm resulting from the copious amounts of cigarette butt litter on city property. These harms include economic loss, including millions spent in clean up, decreased property values, and lost business revenue caused by smelly and unsightly litter; environmental degradation, including the poisoning of the city’s waterways, beaches, fields, pets, and wildlife; the diversion of city resources, such as government labor, time, and attention devoted to this problem; as well as the unmitigated harms caused by all the cigarette butt litter that deteriorates into microplastics full of toxic chemicals before it can be found and collected.

As of this writing, the lawsuit is at the beginning stages. Baltimore, which has requested a jury to hear this case in state court, argues that the companies deliberately created this toxic litter problem. The tobacco companies considered two filter options: a biodegradable filter made of tobacco leaves, and the current filter made of cellulose acetate—a non-biodegradable plastic. They intentionally chose to mass produce the non-biodegradable filters because they believed their consumers preferred them. The tobacco companies knew the content of the plastic filters looked like a decomposable material, like cotton, and that the paper wrapper enhanced this deception. The City also points out that the companies could have removed the cigarette filters from their products altogether. The filters are not proven to reduce negative health effects to the smoker; instead, they likely increase harm to the consumer and the environment. The companies did not educate their consumers about the toxicity and non-biodegradability of their plastic filters, despite being aware of the prominent misconception of biodegradability and of the consumer tendency to toss used butts on the ground. Instead, the tobacco industry raked in profits while pushing the environmental, health, and economic costs onto the City of Baltimore.

Baltimore’s legal claims are based on multiple tort allegations, including violations of dumping and littering state and local laws, in addition to common law theories of continuing trespass of City property, filtered cigarette design defect, public nuisance of cigarette butt litter, and failure to warn of these defects and harms. The City argues that the deliberate acts and omissions of the tobacco companies are a direct and proximate cause to the damages the City has and continues to suffer.

Why it Matters?

It's still too early to know how this lawsuit will pan out, and the deep-pocketed tobacco industry is sure to fight it tooth and nail. The companies have already requested to move this case to federal court, which may be a friendlier forum for them. However, from the public health perspective, the filing of this lawsuit is highly encouraging. Were the city of Baltimore to prevail, it would be a win for public health, environmental justice, and taxpayers. The tobacco industry would be liable for conceivably hundreds of millions of dollars to the City of Baltimore and, as a result, may even choose to eliminate plastic filter from its products. Other jurisdictions will be keeping a close eye on this litigation and, depending on developments, may follow suit.

For more on this lawsuit, Baltimore v. Philip Morris et al., see the Public Health Law Center’s litigation tracker. To learn more about commercial tobacco product waste, please visit our Tobacco Product Waste Toolkit.

Carolina Saavedra, Staff Attorney
February 9, 2023