Do cigarette filters deliver what they promise?

"Filter" evokes cleanliness and safety. Many believe that these cigarettes components retain toxins and protect health. But the facts show otherwise.

A (very brief) history of cigarette filters

Do cigarette filters protect against harmful substances?

The harmful effects of cigarette smoking have been known for decades. The filter is at least a little reassurance for many smokers. However, the safety claims made by the tobacco industry do not stand up to scientific evidence.

A few facts:

But the industry is resourceful. Another innovation to supposedly reduce the tar and nicotine content is filter ventilation in the form of small holes through which the smoke is supposed to be diluted. However, as smokers need to ingest enough nicotine to "get the kick", they draw all the more strongly on the ventilated filters (so-called compensatory smoking), which ultimately cancels out any (questionable) benefits of filtered cigarettes.

What is the impact of cigarette filters on the environment?

These findings alone are sobering enough. However, there is an even greater danger posed by cigarette filters that is only slowly being recognised by scientists and the public: the damage to the environment. Here, too, there are some insightful data:

A cigarette filter consists of 12,000 to 15,000 strands of cellulose acetate. With almost 6 trillion cigarettes sold worldwide every year and a market share of filtered cigarettes of 99.8 % (in the USA), that's a lot of rubbish. Carelessly disposed of in bodies of water and on land, the fibres can spread unhindered through ecosystems.

In a laboratory study of fresh and salt water washouts of cigarette butts, around 800 chemical components were detected. In addition to nicotine, these also included diacetin and triacetin, which are used as plasticisers in the manufacture and attachment of the filters. It is now also known that discarded cigarette butts are a significant source of microplastic waste in the environment.

In light of this, the study authors argue that the so-called "filters" should no longer be labelled as such, but as what they are: Product additives that can cause considerable damage.

A call for a ban on cigarette filters

The scientific community agrees that filtered cigarettes do not reduce the health risks of smoking and can also damage ecosystems. The WHO, public health researchers, and environmentalists are therefore calling for a ban on the sale of disposable cigarette filters. Nevertheless, the myth of the protective effect of filters persists. A lot of educational work is still needed here, including on the part of physicians.

  1. Novotny TE, Hamzai L. Cellulose acetate cigarette filter is hazardous to human health. Tob Control 2023; 0: 1–6. doi:10.1136/tc-2023-057925