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Whose butt is it? tobacco industry research about smokers and cigarette butt waste
  1. Elizabeth A Smith1,
  2. Thomas E Novotny2
  1. 1Department of Social and Behavioral Sciences, University of California San Francisco, San Francisco, California, USA
  2. 2Graduate School of Public Health, San Diego State University, San Diego, California, USA
  1. Correspondence to Elizabeth A Smith, University of California San Francisco, Box 0612, San Francisco, California 94143, USA; libby.smith{at}


Background Cigarette filters are made of non-biodegradable cellulose acetate. As much as 766 571 metric tons of butts wind up as litter worldwide per year. Numerous proposals have been made to prevent or mitigate cigarette butt pollution, but none has been effective; cigarette butts are consistently found to be the single most collected item in beach clean-ups and litter surveys.

Methods We searched the Legacy Tobacco Documents Library ( and using a snowball strategy beginning with keywords (eg, ‘filter’, ‘biodegradable’, ‘butts’). Data from approximately 680 documents, dated 1959–2006, were analysed using an interpretive approach.

Results The tobacco industry has feared being held responsible for cigarette litter for more than 20 years. Their efforts to avoid this responsibility included developing biodegradable filters, creating anti-litter campaigns, and distributing portable and permanent ashtrays. They concluded that biodegradable filters would probably encourage littering and would not be marketable, and that smokers were defensive about discarding their tobacco butts and not amenable to anti-litter efforts.

Conclusions Tobacco control and environmental advocates should develop partnerships to compel the industry to take financial and practical responsibility for cigarette butt waste.

  • Tobacco industry
  • tobacco documents research
  • policy
  • environment
  • qualitative study

This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution Non-commercial License, which permits use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited, the use is non commercial and is otherwise in compliance with the license. See: and

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  • Funding This research was funded by the California Tobacco-Related Diseases Research Program Grant #17IT-0014 and National Cancer Institute Grant #CA120138.

  • Competing interests ES was a consultant for the US Justice Department it its case against the tobacco industry.

  • Provenance and peer review Not commissioned; externally peer reviewed.