Cigarettes - The Human and Environmental Health Double Whammy


Tobacco use is diminishing in the U.S. The most recent U.S. surgeon general report states that smoking rates amongst adults are over 50% lower than they were 50 years ago. While we can get excited about the dropping rate there are still an estimated 41.2 million smokers in the U.S. which is concerning. The surgeon general report:

Despite significant progress since the first Surgeon General’s report, issued 50 years ago, smoking remains the single largest cause of preventable disease and death in the United States.”

As a testament to the dangers of smoking, a recent piece of research published in the Annals of Epidemiology finds that almost ⅓ of cancer deaths in the U.S. are still caused by smoking. Interestingly, according to the American Cancer Society Press Release, this rate is roughly the same from 30 years ago — while rates of smoking have decreased, correlations between certain cancers and tobacco use have increased:

More than 30 years ago, a groundbreaking analysis by famed British researchers, Richard Doll and Richard Peto, calculated that 30 percent of all cancer deaths in the United States were caused by smoking. Since that time, no new estimate of this percentage has been published in the scientific literature. During that same time, smoking rates have dropped, but new cancers have been added to the list of those established as caused by smoking and lung cancer death rates among female smokers have increased.”

The study serves to show that smoking is even more dangerous than we thought for human lungs, but it seems like the negative effects of tobacco don’t stop there. In a recent blog post, Dr. Andrew Weil answered the question “Are cigarette butts an environmental health threat?” His answer was a speculative “yes:”

The butts contain all the toxins found in cigarettes, including nicotine, the carcinogens formaldehyde and benzene, as well as pesticides, herbicides, fungicides and rodent poisons used to grow tobacco. These chemicals can leach into salt and fresh water and are toxic to fish. One study found that the chemicals leached from a single cigarette butt killed half the fish in a tank in a research laboratory.”

There is, however, very little hard evidence to proving the broad effects of their impact, but most of us can understand how easy it would be for those chemicals to leach into our watersheds. Given that cigarette butts can account for 38% of all roadway litter percent of all items, it seems that more research is definitely needed on the subject. Weil refers to this paper by researchers at U.C. San Francisco for much of his analysis.

And speaking of analysis, there may yet be hope for saving people from the dangers of cigarette butts. Jane Brody of the New York Times informs us of a recent study that found encouraging results for new methods of lung cancer screening. As Brody explains, when found early, there is a higher possibility of survival, in part because treatment can start and in part because it is a “wake-up call” to someone if they are smoking.

And leave it to the state of California to tackle the environmental impacts of smoking. A law proposed in January, 2014 would ban the sale of filtered cigarettes in the state.

It will take creativity and whole lot of awareness to lower the rates of lung cancer from smoking. It is nice to see that people are paying attention.

IMAGE: courtesy of


Read all articles by Damon Cory-Watson


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