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It’s time the tobacco industry takes responsibility for the clean-up costs of cigarette litter

3 min read

Five years ago, the tobacco industry made a pledge to play an integral role in cleaning up litter from its products, but nearly six years on very little has changed. It's time for 'big tobacco' to cough up.

The vast majority of responsible businesses play an integral role in cleaning up the waste and litter left behind by their products, and indeed have programmes in place to do so. This is a responsibility that the tobacco industry, thus far, has steadfastly refused to accept.

Of course, there is a responsibility on the primary users of such goods – whether it be a fridge, car, sweet or fast food wrapper, soft drinks bottle or a piece of chewing gum – to dispose of them appropriately. Nonetheless, as government looks to introduce Extended Producer Responsibility legislation through the Environment Bill, it is now widely accepted that producers also have a significant role to play.

‘Producer responsibility’ is a Conservative philosophy championed over the last decade, meaning the costs of clean up is not footed by the taxpayer. Let’s be clear, this is not about ‘bashing business’, but rather ensuring everyone recognises that they have a responsibility and role to play.

Why does this matter in the case of the tobacco industry?

It matters because the research and data tell us that litter from smoking, most commonly cigarette butts made from cellulose acetate – a type of bioplastic that takes decades to break down – are the most common source of litter found in the UK. What’s more, because of the chemical toxicity of such butts, they pose a particular risk to wild, marine, and plant life as concluded by numerous academic studies.

The estimated cost of cleaning up cigarette litter is around £300 million a year

You might think the nature of the tobacco industry makes it difficult to collectively move on this, but that would be wrong. The tobacco industry in the UK, as elsewhere, is made up of four multinational behemoths; Imperial Brands, British American Tobacco (BAT), Japan Tobacco International (JTI) and Philip Morris International.

Five years ago, the tobacco industry made a pledge before the then Housing, Communities and Local Government Select Committee in 2015 to play an integral role in cleaning up litter from its products.

Despite their encouraging words, nearly six years on, very little has changed. Three out of four of these corporate giants continue to do absolutely nothing to tackle the issue, with no plans to change this in the future. Whilst the remaining firm, JTI, spends around £70,000 per annum; a fag butt in the ocean when the estimated cost of cleaning up cigarette litter is around £300 million a year.

The government has become so frustrated with the tobacco industry that DEFRA Under-Secretary of State, Rebecca Pow MP, took the unprecedented step of calling industry in over the summer to ask them what they were doing. She gave them an ultimatum: come up with a credible, serious voluntary scheme working with the key players in the field, or face possible legislative action in the shape of a mandated extended producer responsibility scheme that would end up costing industry far more in the long-term.

It’s not difficult to work out what any rational and responsible business would do when faced with such a conundrum. Yet, months after that ministerial meeting, the industry still prevaricates and delays using every trick in the book. They have deployed highly paid lobbyists to try and push back against what most other businesses would understand as its rightful corporate responsibility. 

Imperial Brands, British American Tobacco, Japan Tobacco International, Philip Morris International; the ball is firmly in your court.


Kevin Holinrake is the Conservative MP for Thirsk and Malton and chair of the Tidy Britain APPG.

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