SDG 14

Preserving aquatic life

To the overview

Smoking has a direct impact on the health of waterways and seas, as well as that of aquatic life. Tobacco requires significant quantities of pesticides and fertilisers, because it is grown as a monoculture, and the plant needs large amounts of nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium, which results in impoverished soil.[1] These agrochemicals - which include chloropicrin, a pesticide which is toxic for marine organisms - often end up in aquifers and adjacent waterways. Studies conducted in Nicaragua and Brazil showed dangerous levels of these chemicals in streams located near tobacco plantations.[2]

In addition, this crop must be irrigated. It takes 2925 m3 of water to produce a ton of tobacco, more than twice what it takes to grow the same quantity of corn.[3] The fabrication of cigarettes also requires vast quantities of water, mostly in the form of steam used to regulate the level of humidity of the tobacco and to infuse it with additives.

In 2013, British American Tobacco reported consuming 2.45 million m3 of water per year to produce 676 billion cigarettes. Extrapolated to a global scale, this represents 22 million m3 of water per year.[4] Knowing that many plantations and tobacco factories are located in emerging countries which suffer from water shortages, it is clear that this endangers the health of their aquifers.

Cigarette factories also produce toxic residues, including ammonia, nicotine, hydrochloric acid, methanol and nitrates, which often end up contaminating waterways. In 2014, wastewater from the Altria plant contained 450 kg of phosphorus and 7700 kg of nitrogen, according to its own social responsibility report.[5]

But the point at which tobacco poses the greatest risk to aquatic life is at the end of its lifespan. Every year, some 4.5 trillion cigarette butts and two million tons of cigarette cartons, packs, aluminium foil and cellophane packaging are thrown on the ground.[6] Cigarette filters, which are made of cellulose acetate - a plastic - are particularly problematic, as they take an average of 12 years to break down.[7] Introduced by the tobacco industry in the 1950s, when the link between cigarettes and lung cancer were becoming known, they have in fact no beneficial effect on cancer risk, because the smoker makes up for the reduction in tar by inhaling more strongly.[8]

Under the influence of the sun's UV rays, cigarette filters break down into thousands of micro-particles of plastic, which can be ingested by aquatic life and thus enter the food chain.[9] They end up being consumed by humans when they eat fish or seafood. They can also be swallowed whole by fish who confuse them with insects, with the risk of obstructing their digestive systems.[10]

Cigarette butts also contain 7000 chemical products, of which 50 or so are known carcinogens.[11] When they are thrown on the ground, these substances - including nicotine (which is a natural pesticide), arsenic and heavy metals - end up in urban water systems, in rivers and streams, and in seas and oceans. German researchers have demonstrated that a single cigarette butt is enough to pollute 1000 litres of water, and that this happens in less than 30 minutes.[12]

This has grave consequences for aquatic life. A study conducted by the American Environmental Protection Agency demonstrated that if one immerses cigarette butts in water for 96 hours, half of the fish in that water, whether freshwater or marine, will die.[13] And a University of San Diego study showed that it took only one cigarette butt per litre of water to reach a toxicity level fatal to topsmelt silversides (Atherinops affinis) and fathead minnows (Pimephales promelas), two species of fish.[14]

Other researchers have found that the dispersion of cigarette butts in lakes and reservoirs can disrupt the reproduction of copepods (tiny crustaceans), impact the growth and alter the DNA of Nereididae (marine worms), diminish the activity of freshwater snails and reduce the filtration capacity of blue mussels.[15] The chemicals contained in these cigarette residues also tend to accumulate in the bodies of certain species such as trout or mussels, making them unsafe to eat.[16]

The growing popularity of electronic cigarettes and heated tobacco products presents new risks for marine life. Difficult to recycle because of the large number of components, these devices contain lithium-ion batteries, printed circuits, plastic cartridges and residues of liquids containing nicotine and other chemicals. When they are thrown on the ground, they release these harmful substances and heavy metals, particularly lead, into the environment, which can contaminate waterways and seas.[17]

The tobacco industry has, up until now, always refused to accept responsibility for the trillions of cigarette butts which endanger aquatic life. Instead, it has tried to blame consumers, emphasizing their propensity to throw away cigarette butts anywhere and everywhere. Thus most cigarette makers have developed partnerships with environmental NGOs, in the context of their so-called social responsibility activities, which lead them to participate in beach clean-ups, install ashtrays in public places, or sensitise smokers to the environmental risks of throwing their cigarette butts on the ground.[18]

Phillip Morris International, for example, launched an initiative called "Our world is not an ashtray," in which the company pledged to reduce by 50% the quantity of plastic trash generated by their products by the year 2025.[19] Several cigarette manufacturers, following the example of Imperial Brands or R.M. Reynolds, have also tried to market cigarettes with paper or biodegradable filters, but then quickly pulled them from the shelves, arguing that consumers didn't like them.[20] In the meantime, aquatic life continues to suffer from this inaction.


[2] Lecours N, Almeida GEG, Abdallah JM, et al, Environmental health impacts of tobacco farming: a review of the literature. Tobacco Control 2012;21:191-196.


[4] Ibidem








[12] Amy L. Roder Green, Anke Putschew, Thomas Nehls, Littered cigarette butts as a source of nicotine in urban waters, Journal of Hydrology, Volume 519, Part D, 2014, Pages 3466-3474,


[14] Slaughter E, Gersberg RM, Watanabe K, et al, Toxicity of cigarette butts, and their chemical components, to marine and freshwater fish. Tobacco Control 2011;20:i25-i29.


[16] Ibidem.

[17] Pourchez J, Mercier C et Forest V, From smoking to vaping: a new environmental threat?, The Lancet, 2022,

[18] Curtis C, Novotny TE, Lee K, et al, Tobacco industry responsibility for butts: a Model Tobacco Waste Act. Tobacco Control 2017;26:113-117.