Cigarette Filters

This page was last edited on at

Key Points

  • Filtered cigarettes have historically been marketed as safer than unfiltered cigarettes, despite evidence showing that they are not less harmful and have increased health risks. Yet, they are perceived as less harmful.
  • Today, new variants of filtered cigarettes continue to be promoted by the industry to retailers.
  • The high environmental cost of cigarette filters is being used by the industry to facilitate engagement with the UK government, in an attempt to repair its damaged reputation and maintain profits.
  • The tobacco industry should bear the responsibility for both the environmental and health harms of cigarette filters.

More than 90% of cigarettes sold worldwide have a filter.12 These filters are typically made of a plastic called cellulose acetate,3 and are not biodegradable.4

History of industry marketing

‘Safer’ and ‘healthier’

Cigarette filters have been referred to as the “deadliest fraud in the history of human civilisation”.5 Filters were initially used from 1860 to 1920 to prevent particles of tobacco entering the mouth. The first major filtered cigarette, called Parliament (Brown and Williamson), was introduced in the USA in 1931. Viceroy cigarettes (also Brown and Williamson), introduced in 1936, were the first filter cigarette sold at a popular price.1

During the early 1950s, evidence demonstrated causal links between smoking and lung cancer.67 The tobacco industry responded by introducing filters to reassure smokers that it was taking action to make cigarettes safer,2 and to promote an alternative to quitting.8 In 1950, cigarettes with cellulose acetate filters were introduced, capturing 1% of the market share.1

Many new filters were launched between the mid 1950s to mid 1960s. Industry spending on advertising increased from over US$55 million in 1952 to approximately US$150 million in 1959.8

In 1964, the US Surgeon General’s report on smoking and health concluded that smoking caused lung cancer.9 Philip Morris (PM) claimed that this report missed an opportunity to promote the health benefits of filters. In 1966, PM conducted market analysis for a ‘health cigarette’, which concluded that “the illusion of filtration is as important as the fact of filtration”.8

‘Light’ and ‘mild’ cigarettes

In the 1970s, with more studies confirming the damaging health impact of smoking, tobacco companies started introducing ‘light’ and ‘mild’ cigarette brand variants.8 Japan Tobacco International was the first tobacco company to introduce a cigarette with ‘mild’ in the brand name.10 Such cigarettes, which initially were supported by public health,11 had perforated filters.2

Industry research using standard smoking machine tests found that filter ventilation reduced tar and nicotine concentrations,12 as well as making cigarettes taste lighter and milder.1314 However, real-life cigarette use in smokers differs from machine use. Smokers engage in ‘compensatory smoking’; they take more frequent and deeper puffs to satisfy nicotine cravings,15 and cover the ventilation holes with their fingers.1617

Advertising slogans for such cigarettes referred to “miracle filter tips”.8 There was a switch from regular products to new products, such as filtered cigarettes, particularly among female and older smokers. However, overall smoking rates stayed the same across this period.8

Health impact and consumer perception

No benefit to health

Filters have been marketed as a means to reduce smoking-related health risks,2 although there is no evidence to support this claim. Despite common perception, research has shown that cigarette filters do not offer any health benefit and filtered cigarettes are not less harmful than unfiltered cigarettes, for either smokers13 or passive smokers.18 In addition, the 2014 US Surgeon General’s Report on smoking and health concluded that cigarette filter ventilation, found in ‘light’ brand variants, has caused an increase in lung adenocarcinomas (cancers found in peripheral areas of the lungs) among smokers, due to altered puffing and inhalation associated with ventilated filters.19 This means smokers inhale carcinogens more deeply into the lungs13 and small particles in tobacco smoke are increasingly deposited in small airways.19 There is also a risk of smokers inhaling fibres from filters.20

‘Lighter’ thought to be safer

Smokers and non-smokers incorrectly perceive that ‘lighter’ brand variants are less damaging to health. Malboro Gold (previously ‘light’) smokers are more likely than Malboro red (‘full strength’) smokers to rate their cigarettes as weaker, and lower in nicotine and tar, as well as less harsh and mild tasting. However, this is not demonstrated by evidence on biomarkers of exposure.21

The evidence on filters also shows that:

  • Filter marketing slogans imply cleanliness and reduced risk through improved filtration,22 hygiene,23 ‘cleaner’ stubbing out, less smoke smell, and a smoother smoking experience.24
  • Smokers perceive cigarette packs with a picture of a filter as significantly more likely to taste smooth, deliver less tar and be lower risk.25
  • The colour of cigarette packs is associated with filter ventilation. Filtered cigarette packages are associated with brighter and less saturated colours.26
  • White filter tips reinforce this perception of reduced harm.2728 Young people in particular perceive cigarette packs with references to filters as significantly less harmful than packs without references to filters.29

Global Regulation

The World Health Organisation (WHO) Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC) recommends that countries ban misleading and deceptive tobacco advertising, including descriptors such as ‘light’, ‘ultra-light’, ‘low tar’, and ‘mild’.30 The WHO also recommends the extension of tobacco product sale regulation and tax policy to include single-use cigarette filters.4

As of January 2021, 93 countries worldwide have banned or restricted misleading packaging and labelling.31 Descriptors of ‘light’ and ‘mild’ on cigarette packs have been banned in the European Union and Brazil since 2003. Similar policies have been in place in Australia since 2005, Canada since 2007 and the USA since 2009. Consequently, misperceptions about ‘light’ cigarettes reduced between 2002 and 2009 in smokers across Canada, the UK, and Australia.3233

The tobacco industry continues to use filter ventilation to imply that filtered cigarettes are safer, by using packaging to indicate ‘light’ or ‘mild’ cigarettes, despite the introduction of bans on misleading packaging and labelling. This deceptive marketing is typically not regulated by plain packaging legislation.3233 To evade this legislation, the tobacco industry is exploiting loopholes by:

  • Using colour named brands to indicate former ‘lights’ brands, which were associated with filter ventilation,34 while maintaining the same product characteristics.35
  • Innovating filters, which enables continued differentiation between products and promotion to investors (see Figure 1).36
flow diagram featuring images of filters and packaging

Figure 1: Slide from BAT Investor Day 2015 presentation on marketing strategy. (Source: British American Tobacco)

Innovations in filters

The tobacco industry uses product innovation as a tactic to grow sales and circumvent legislation.

Flavour capsules

Since being introduced in 2007, cigarettes with flavour capsules in the filter have grown exponentially worldwide. In 2017, the market share of capsule cigarettes was greatest in Chile (36%), followed by Peru (34%), Guatemala (32%), Mexico (22%), and Argentina (17%).37 (More details on the capsule market can be found on Menthol cigarettes: Tobacco Industry Interests and Interference).

Filters can contain one or two different flavour capsules, with flavours including mint, fruit, or those that imitate drinks, including cocktails. In 2014, flavour capsules were also introduced for roll-your-own cigarettes in the UK and Korea. These types of filters enable tobacco companies to market and differentiate their brands, despite regulations on plain packaging and health warnings.37

Capsules in cigarette filters are strategically marketed to consumers, through a ball and/or power button symbol, coloured images (blue or green), and phrases such as “activate” and “pop it”.38 The evidence shows that cigarettes with flavour capsules are associated with misperceptions of harm39 and increased attractiveness among young smokers.40

Recessed and firm filters

Since plain packaging legislation was introduced in Australia in 2012, the tobacco industry has undermined the legislation by introducing recessed filters and firm filters. Recessed filters have a hollow section at the mouth end, whereas firm filters look similar to standard filters but have a firmer feel. Recessed and firm filters reduce perceptions of harm and increase appeal.41 Packs labelled with these new filters have mostly replaced the common products in leading brands.42

As the UK prohibits tobacco advertising and point of sale display, and enforces plain packaging legislation,33 the tobacco industry uses the retail trade press to promote tobacco products to retailers rather than use traditional marketing. This includes adverts claiming improved filters (see Figures 2-4). Before and around the introduction of plain packaging legislation in the UK, tobacco companies introduced filter innovations such as recessed filters.36

The retail trade press advertised British American Tobacco’s Lucky Strike with a recessed filter (see Figure 2);43 and Imperial’s JPS Triple Flow with a recessed filter in 2016 (see Figure 3);44 and PMI’s Malboro with a firmer filter in 2015 (see Figure 4).45

 

Image of cigarette and packet

Figure 2: BAT advert for Lucky Strike. (Source: Retail Newsagent, 2016)

 

Diagram of cigarette and filter, and packet

Figure 3: Imperial Tobaccco advert for JPS Triple Flow. (Source: Retail Newsagent, 2016)

 

Image of different coloured Marlboro packets

Figure 4: PMI advert for Marlboro. (Source: Retail Newsagent, 2015)

Environmental impact

Cigarette filters are among one of the top ten most common plastic’s in the world’s oceans, representing a major environmental hazard. 4.5 trillion cigarette butts (used filtered cigarettes) are deposited into the environment each year. It has been estimated that cigarette butt waste will increase by 50% in 2025.46

Cellulose acetate filters are photodegradable, as ultraviolet rays from the sun reduces the filter to smaller pieces.47 However, they are not biodegradable because they are made of acetyl molecules.4 They only lose an average of 38% of mass in two years of decomposition48 and contain multiple toxic substances which infiltrate the environment.4950 Cigarette filters affect the microbial diversity of coastal sediment51 and the mortality of animals.52

Single use plastics were banned across the EU in 2019,53 although this does not cover plastic cigarette filters. As of 2021, tobacco companies must increase awareness of the plastic in cigarette filters and contribute financially to dealing with cigarette butts.54 However, these measures were resisted by the tobacco industry.55

Multiple options have been suggested to reduce the environmental impact of cigarette filters, including:

  • Prohibiting filter ventilation, alongside low maximum standard tar, nicotine, and carbon monoxide yields, which would make cigarettes less appealing and promote smoking cessation;56
  • Combining plain packaging legislation with removing colour as a distinguishing feature across cigarette packs, to remove the association between packaging elements and filter ventilation;26
  • Labelling filtered cigarettes with warnings advising smokers to dispose of the product responsibly;47
  • Implementing deposit/recycling laws in which a deposit is initially paid, and returned once the used cigarette is returned;47
  • Implementing a waste tax on cigarettes which could be used to fund research;47
  • Bringing litigation against the tobacco industry;47
  • Making biodegradable filters mandatory;47
  • Implementing fines for littering and increasing consumer education and responsibility.47

Biodegradable filters

Given the high environmental cost of cigarette filters, there is growing concern about the need to develop alternatives to current methods of disposal57 and increase the biodegradability of filters.58 The tobacco industry is using growing environmental concern to exploit a loophole in the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC) and as a tactic: to justify and enable interaction with the UK government.59 This is a greenwashing tactic used by the tobacco industry. Tobacco companies’ promote their environmental campaigns and activities, in order to increase sales and divert attention away from the health and environmental harms of cigarette filters.

The tobacco industry may see biodegradable filters as a method to combat the social unacceptability of smoking and improve the industry’s public image.6061 However, biodegradable filters still have negative impacts; they would still leach harmful chemicals into the environment if not discarded properly.49

 

The tobacco industry’s primary motive is to rehabilitate its reputation.60  Partnerships between public health and environmental advocates could increase pressure on tobacco companies to take responsibility for the environmental and health harms of cigarette filters,6061 and increase support for regulation.62

TobaccoTactics Resources

Tobacco Control Research Group (TCRG) research

For a comprehensive list of all TCRG publications, including research that evaluates the impact of public health policy, go to TCRG publications.

References

  1. abcJ.L. Pauly, A.B. Mepani, J.D. Lesses, et al. Cigarettes with defective filters marketed for 40 years: what Philip Morris never told smokers, Tobacco Control, 2002, 11:i51-i61, doi:10.1136/tc.11.suppl_1.i51
  2. abcdB. Harris, The intractable cigarette ‘filter problem’, Tobacco Control, 2011, 20:i10-i16, doi:10.1136/tc.2010.040113
  3. S. Fischer, K. Thümmler, B. Volkert, et al., Properties and applications of cellulose acetate, Macromolecular Symposia, 2008, 262(1):89-96, doi:10.1002/masy.200850210
  4. abcWorld Health Organisation, Tobacco and its environmental impact: an overview, Geneva, 2017
  5. P. Kennedy, Who made that cigarette filter? New York Times Magazine, 6 July 2012, accessed January 2021
  6. R. Doll, A.B. Hill, The mortality of doctors in relation to their smoking habits; a preliminary report, British Medical Journal, 1954, 1(4877):1451-5, doi:10.1136/bmj.1.4877.1451
  7. R. Doll, A.B. Hill, Lung cancer and other causes of death in relation to smoking; a second report on the mortality of British doctors, British Medical Journal, 1956, 2(5001):1071-81, doi:10.1136/bmj.2.5001.1071
  8. abcdefR.W. Pollay, T. Dewhirst, The dark side of marketing seemingly “Light” cigarettes: successful images and failed fact, Tobacco Control, 2002, 11:i18-i31, doi:10.1136/tc.11.suppl_1.i18
  9. U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare. Smoking and Health. Report of The Advisory Committee to The Surgeon General of The Public Health Service. Washington D.C. 1964.
  10. M. Assunta, S. Chapman, The lightest market in the world: Light and mild cigarettes in Japan, Nicotine & Tobacco Research, 2008, 10(5):803-10, doi:10.1080/14622200802023882
  11. A. Fairchild, J. Colgrove, Out of the ashes: The life, death, and rebirth of the “safer” cigarette in the United States, American Journal of Public Health, 2004, 94(2):192-204, doi:10.2105/ajph.94.2.192
  12. N. Gray, P. Boyle, Publishing tobacco tar measurements on packets, British Medical Journal, 2004, 329(7470):813-4, doi:10.1136/bmj.329.7470.813
  13. abcM-A. Song, N.L. Benowitz, M. Berman, et al. Cigarette filter ventilation and its relationship to increasing rates of lung adenocarcinoma, Journal of the National Cancer Institute, 2017, 109(12), doi:10.1093/jnci/djx075
  14. L.T. Kozlowski, R.J. Connor, Cigarette filter ventilation is a defective design because of misleading taste, bigger puffs, and blocked vents, Tobacco Control, 2002, 11:i40-i50, doi:10.1136/tc.11.suppl_1.i40
  15. M.V. Djordjevic, D.D. Stellman, E. Zang. Doses of nicotine and lung carcinogens delivered to cigarette smokers, Journal of the National Cancer Institute, 2000, 92(2):106-11 doi:10.1093/jnci/92.2.106
  16. L.T. Kozlowski, E.L. White, C.T. Sweeney, et al. Few smokers know their cigarettes have filter vents, American Journal of Public Health, 1998, 88(4):681-2, doi:10.2105/AJPH.88.4.681-a
  17. G. Scherer, Smoking behaviour and compensation: a review of the literature, Psychopharmacology, 1999, 145(1):1-20, doi:10.1007/s002130051027[ref] The tobacco industry was aware that smokers smoked these cigarettes differently by the 1970s, which began an industry-wide movement towards marketing filtered cigarettes as ‘safer’[ref]L. Bero, Implications of the tobacco industry documents for public health and policy, Annual Review of Public Health, 2003, 24(1):267-88, doi:10.1146/annurev.publhealth.24.100901.140813
  18. M. Schulz, A. Gerber, D.A. Groneberg, Are filter-tipped cigarettes still less harmful than non-filter cigarettes?—A laser spectrometric particulate matter analysis from the non-smokers point of view, International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 2016, 13(4), doi:10.3390/ijerph13040429
  19. abA. Charloux, E. Quoix, N. Wolkove, et al. The increasing incidence of lung adenocarcinoma: reality or artefact? A review of the epidemiology of lung adenocarcinoma, International Journal of Epidemiology, 1997, 26(1):14-23, doi:10.1093/ije/26.1.14
  20. J.L. Pauly, H.A. Allaart, M.I. Rodriguez, R.J. Streck, Fibers released from cigarette filters: An additional health risk to the smoker? Cancer Research, 1995, 55(2):253.
  21. M. Mercincavage, B. Albelda, D. Mays, V. Souprountchouk, et al. Shedding ‘light’ on cigarette pack design: Colour differences in product perceptions, use and exposure following the US descriptor ban, Tobacco Control, 2020, doi:10.1136/tobaccocontrol-2020-055886
  22. Unknown. BAT smooth flow filter. Retail Newsagent; 2016. p. 44.
  23. Gray A. Investor Day 2015: Marketing Strategy. London: British American Tobacco; 2015.
  24. Cooper A. Half year results for the six months ended 31 March 2016. Bristol: Imperial Brands Plc; 2016.
  25. D. Hammond, C. Parkinson, The impact of cigarette package design on perceptions of risk, Journal of Public Health, 2009, 31(3):345-53, doi:10.1093/pubmed/fdp066
  26. abR.J. O’Connor, D. Hammond, Cigarette package colour is associated with level of filter ventilation, Tobacco Control, 2018, 27(3):337, doi:10.1136/tobaccocontrol-2017-053730
  27. A. Ford, C. Moodie, A.M. MacKintosh, G. Hastings, Adolescent perceptions of cigarette appearance, European Journal of Public Health, 2014, 24(3):464-8, doi:10.1093/eurpub/ckt161
  28. R.J. O’Connor, M. Bansal-Travers, K.M. Cummings, et al. Filter presence and tipping paper color influence consumer perceptions of cigarettes, BMC Public Health, 2015, 15(1):1279, doi:10.1186/s12889-015-2643-z
  29. C.D. Czoli, D. Hammond, Cigarette packaging: Youth perceptions of “natural” cigarettes, filter references, and contraband tobacco, Journal of Adolescent Health, 2014, 54(1):33-9, doi:10.1016/j.jadohealth.2013.07.016
  30. World Health Organisation, WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, Geneva, Switzerland, 2003.
  31. Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids, Tobacco Control Laws, website, accessed January 2021
  32. abH-H. Yong, R. Borland. K.M. Cummings, et al. Impact of the removal of misleading terms on cigarette pack on smokers’ beliefs about ‘light/mild’ cigarettes: cross-country comparisons, Addiction, 2011, 106(12):2204-13, doi:10.1111/j.1360-0443.2011.03533.x
  33. abcStandardised tobacco packaging – removing the power of brands, Action on Smoking and Health, 17 May 2017, accessed January 2021
  34. H.R. Alpert, D. Carpenter, G.N. Connolly, Tobacco industry response to a ban on lights descriptors on cigarette packaging and population outcomes, Tobacco Control, 2018, 27(4):390, doi:1136/tobaccocontrol-2017-053683
  35. G.N. Connolly, H.R. Alpert, Has the tobacco industry evaded the FDA’s ban on ‘light’ cigarette descriptors? Tobacco Control, 2014, 23(2):140-5, doi:10.1136/tobaccocontrol-2012-050746
  36. abS. Rossel, Focus on the filter, Tobacco Reporter, 1 August 2016, accessed January 2021
  37. abC. Moodie, J.F. Thrasher, Y.J. Cho, et al. Flavour capsule cigarettes continue to experience strong global growth, Tobacco Control, 2019, 28(5):595, doi:10.1136/tobaccocontrol-2018-054711
  38. C. Washington, K. Smith, K. Welding, J. Cohen, The capsule trap – how tobacco companies communicate about flavor capsules in cigarette filters on the pack, Tobacco Induced Diseases, 2018, 16(1), doi:10.18332/tid/84604
  39. J.F. Thrasher, E.N. Abad-Vivero, C. Moodie, et al. Cigarette brands with flavour capsules in the filter: Trends in use and brand perceptions among smokers in the USA, Mexico and Australia, 2012–2014, Tobacco Control, 2016, 25(3):275, doi:10.1136/tobaccocontrol-2014-052064
  40. C. Moodie. A. Ford, F. Dobbie, et al. The power of product innovation: Smokers’ perceptions of capsule cigarettes, Nicotine & Tobacco Research, 2018, 20(9):1157-60, doi:10.1093/ntr/ntx195
  41. M.A. Wakefield, K. Dunstone, E. Brennan, et al. Australian smokers’ experiences and perceptions of recessed and firm filter cigarettes, Tobacco Control, 2020, doi:10.1136/tobaccocontrol-2020-055725
  42. M. Scollo, M. Bayly, S. White, et al. Tobacco product developments in the Australian market in the 4 years following plain packaging, Tobacco Control, 2018, 27(5):580, doi:10.1136/tobaccocontrol-2017-053912
  43. British American Tobacco, Lucky Strike advert, Retail Newsagent, 2 December 2016, p.45
  44. Imperial Tobacco, JPS advert, Retail Newsagent, 18 March 2016, p.11
  45. Philip Morris International, Marlboro advert, Retail Newsagent, 11 December 2015, p. 29
  46. J. Torkashvand, M. Farzadkia, H.R. Sobhi, A. Esrafili, Littered cigarette butt as a well-known hazardous waste: A comprehensive systematic review, Journal of Hazardous Materials,  2020, 383:121242, doi:10.1016/j.jhazmat.2019.121242
  47. abcdefgT.E. Novotny, K. Lum, E. Smith, et al. Cigarettes butts and the case for an environmental policy on hazardous cigarette waste, International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 2009, 6(5):1691-1705, doi:10.3390/ijerph6051691
  48. G. Bonanomi, G. Incerti, G. Cesarano, tet al. Cigarette butt decomposition and associated chemical changes assessed by 13C CPMAS NMR, PLOS ONE, 2015;10(1):e0117393, doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0117393
  49. abT.E. Novotny, E. Slaughter, Tobacco product waste: An environmental approach to reduce tobacco consumption, Current Environmental Health Reports, 2014, 1(3):208-16, doi:10.1007/s40572-014-0016-x
  50. E. Slaughter, R.M. Gersberg, K. Watanabe, et al. Toxicity of cigarette butts, and their chemical components, to marine and freshwater fish, Tobacco Control, 2011, 20:i25-i29, doi:10.1136/tc.2010.040170
  51. M. Quéméneur, S. Chifflet, F. Akrout, et al. Impact of cigarette butts on microbial diversity and dissolved trace metals in coastal marine sediment, Estuarine, Coastal and Shelf Science, 2020, 240:106785, doi:10.1016/j.ecss.2020.106785
  52. D.S. Green, L. Kregting, B. Boots, Smoked cigarette butt leachate impacts survival and behaviour of freshwater invertebrates, Environmental Pollution, 2020, 266:115286, doi:10.1016/j.envpol.2020.115286
  53. Official Journal of the European Union, Directive (EU) 2019/904 of the European Parliament and Of The Council, 5 June 2019, accessed January 2021
  54. European Commission, Circular Economy: Commission welcomes Council final adoption of new rules on single-use plastics to reduce marine plastic litter, 21 May 2019, accessed January 2021
  55. European Commission, Synopsis Report Stakeholder Consultation, 28 May 2018, accessed January 2021
  56. L.T. Kozlowski, R.J. O’Connor, G.A. Giovino, et al. Maximum yields might improve public health—if filter vents were banned: A lesson from the history of vented filters, Tobacco Control, 2006, 15(3):262-266, doi:10.1136/tc.2006.016501/
  57. A.A. Kadir, N.A. Sarani, Cigarette butts pollution and environmental impact – A review, Applied Mechanics and Materials, 2015, 773-774:1106-10, doi:10.4028/www.scientific.net/AMM.773-774.1106
  58. T.E. Novotny, F. Zhao, Consumption and production waste: Another externality of tobacco use, Tobacco Control, 1999, 8(1):75, doi:10.1136/tc.8.1.75
  59. Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Defra engagement with the tobacco industry on litter: Minutes from a ministerial roundtable on smoking related litter, 28 September 2020, accessed January 2021
  60. abcE.A. Smith, T.E. Novotny, Whose butt is it? Tobacco industry research about smokers and cigarette butt waste, Tobacco Control, 2011, 20:i25-i29, doi:10.1136/tc.2010.040105
  61. abEvans-Reeves, K. Lauber, K. Hiscock, R. The ‘filter fraud’ persists: the tobacco industry is still using filters to suggest lower health risks while destroying the environment, Tobacco Control,  2021
  62. J. Hoek, P. Gendall, M-L. Blank, L. Robertson, et al. Butting out: An analysis of support for measures to address tobacco product waste, Tobacco Control, 2020, 29(2):131, doi:10.1136/tobaccocontrol-2019-054956