From smoking to vaping: a new environmental threat?


E-cigarettes are generally considered to be less dangerous for human health than combustible cigarettes, and are a promising harm reduction tool for smokers.

However, despite possible health benefits compared with tobacco smoking, vaping is a potential environmental threat.

Recently, dry powder inhalers—widespread medical devices routinely used to treat pulmonary diseases—were shown to have a concerning carbon footprint. Given their similarities to inhalers, the impact of e-cigarettes on planetary health can also no longer be ignored.

Historically, tobacco waste was one of the most abundant forms of plastic pollution in the world, with trillions of individual cigarette butts polluting the global environment every year. Cigarette butts and their filters are made of a common man-made plastic, and when thrown into soil and water, release harmful chemicals before turning into microplastic pollution. Discarded cigarette butts present a serious threat to human health and wildlife, and are an example of how the tobacco industry has had a substantial impact on the environment for decades.

Vaping, an alternative to smoking, has substantially risen in popularity over the past 15 years. With the vape market mainly owned by the tobacco industry, it is legitimate to question whether vaping is more eco-friendly than smoking, or whether the tobacco industry has actually gone from bad to worse. To fix the problem of cigarette butt waste, several countries are introducing measures to make tobacco companies responsible for reducing and managing this waste through a mandatory product stewardship scheme.4 Nonetheless, a new threat is now facing our planet: vape waste, including disposable devices, e-liquid containers, packaging, and batteries, comprising not one but three forms of waste.

The first type of waste that vaping products contain is plastic waste. Many popular e-cigarettes are pod-based devices with single-use plastic cartridges. Just like coffee capsules were over the past decade, the vape industry could soon be the next environmental crisis in terms of plastic pollution. The comparison between vape pods and coffee capsules fits well, since e-cigarettes are intentionally designed to be convenient and single-use, and both are (largely) non-biodegradable and poorly recyclable.

Read full article here.

Jeremie Pourchez et al. – The Lancet – 2022-05-23.

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