Home Global Cigarette butt: A threat to the health of under-five children by Vita...

Cigarette butt: A threat to the health of under-five children by Vita Mithi, (University of Livingstonia, Malawi)


Cigarette butt: A threat to the health of under-five children

By Vita Mithi, University of LIvingstonia

Plate 1: A fresh Cigarette butt along the road

Imagine this: You are a tobacco farmer or a manager at one of cigarette manufacturing company in one of the poorest countries of the world. Each year, profits from tobacco made cigarette keep increasing because a larger population of adolescent smoke to relieve stress or refresh themselves. When you take a walk in a semi-urban setting you find that your child (aged 5-10 years and an outstanding academician) has a fresh cigarette butt in his or her hand which has been littered by a smoker.

Later on the child falls sick and is diagnosed with multi drug resistant tuberculosis and lung cancer. The doctor tells you that the child seems to have been in contact with a volume of cigarette butts which are littered everywhere in the area on daily basis. Unfortunately when you enter into your elder child’s room, you find a pack of cigarette butts in a box. While startled, you hear a knock on the door and it is a mail delivery from the school your elder child attends and he/she has failed terribly and a dismissal letter attached stating, ‘due to heavy smoking, the school may no longer accommodate the child’. Who is to be blamed for your young child sickness, is it you or elder child or a smoker in the community who regularly smokes to relieve stress.


Cigarette butt and other post-consumer products from tobacco use are the most common waste elements littered, second to credit scratch cards (mobile units) according to observations. A cigarette butt is the last part of a cigarette once an individual has finished smoking. Smokers call it a filter. Apparently, these butts are everywhere; in the streets, bars, drains, roads and local cabins locally known as Visakasa (place were liquor is sold or a small bar in a semi-urban area), chiwaya cha chips or Nyama. These are the same places that attract a lot of youths, by the way they tend to be places for leisure. Discarded cigarette butts may present health risks to human infants and animals because of indiscriminate eating behaviours, (Curtis et al. 2017). We know that children have the character to imitate what adults are doing as such they tend to consume these pieces of toxic trash based on their observations and curiosity about life.

In one of the semi urban or informal areas of Mzuzu city known as Zolozolo which is densely populated, has a larger number of children, and has a lot of local cabins where people buy different kinds of cigarettes and liquor. An in-depth interview with a retailer and adolescent smokers on whether cigarette butt pose a threat to young children pointed out that cigarette left overs can cause diseases like “Cholera” and “diarrhea” once they get in contact with the cigarette butt during the rainy season, while in the dry season it may cause “cough”. They further articulated that once a smoker has a disease (bacterium or virus) in their mouth, and litters a fresh cigarette butt with saliva from the smoker. They may cause diseases like chigumu “gum disease” to children once in contact while they are playing and they put it in their mouth.

……..“Filter nimuheni chomene chifukwa chakuti akukhaliska pa munthu wasuta nakutaya, chifukwa muli nthonje uyo akuvunda yayi”…… “Nyengo yachihanya vikwiza namatenga nge vikhoso, kwe nyengo ya vula munthu wangatola matekenya, vigumu na kolera, kufumira”……. (filter is dangerous since it can stay for a long period, as it is made of cotton and has a strong cover which is non-biodegradable…..during dry season a person or children can get a cough and gum disease while in the rainy season children may get cholera, jiggers and diseases of the mouth as well).

Used cigarette butts are not just pieces of non-biodegradable plastic. They also contain hazardous chemicals such as cadmium, arsenic, lead, carcinogens, nicotine and toxins found in all tobacco products that make them to have a strong scent even if they are disposed, (Thomas at el, 2009). Definitely when a children comes in contact with the “butt” they can develop cough or other conditions such as blindness, Stinging, excessive tearing and blinking, Periodontal disease (gum disease,

Gingivitis, periodontitis), Loose teeth, tooth loss, heart disease etc. that can become a disease burden to the household, community and nation. But, another interaction with a trader/a tobacco famer and a smoker pointed out that cigarette butt cannot cause harm to anyone because it has expired (see plate 1).

.“Ka filter pala wabema wamala tikutaya chifukwa kakuwanga kamala ntchito” …“olo ungataya pa untheka wakuomira kangabuka cha pekhapekha kuwe phepo”… (When a smoker has finished smoking, the filter is thrown away because it has expired or it is useless….even if the cigarette butt is thrown on dry grass it cannot cause fire or smoke unless there is strong wind).

Figure 3: A trader with an energizer or a lit cigarette.

Here the farmer/smoker/trader has shown a deficit in knowledge about the repercussions of a cigarette butt. When a cigarette butt is simply dropped, it can smolder for up to 3 hours. Cigarette smoke contains up to 4,000 chemicals, so each second the butt is left alight, dangerous toxins are released into the environment, (Thomas at el., 2011). The chemicals contained in the cigarette butt are partially filtered out during the smoking process. This thing may seem small, but with an estimated 4.5 trillion butts (worldwide) littered every year, the toxic chemicals add up and pose a great threat to the health of infants, (Drope at el., 2018). Malawi does not have a Tobacco regulatory body or national agency focused on tobacco control, so exact figures on cigarette butt littered are difficult to determine.

A lot of non-governmental organizations such as Baobab health trust, KNCV Tuberculosis foundation, International Training and Education Centre for health (I-TECH-Malawi), just to mention a few, have partnered with the Ministry of Health to strengthen health systems towards reducing or battle the prevalence of tuberculosis in the country which is also caused by tobacco smoking and cigarette butts. This signify how serious the disease (TB) is, equivalent to cigarette butts.

In summary, a cigarette butt is the last part that is left once a smoker has finished smoking. Even though the cigarette butt is known as a useless or expired material by smokers, but to the health of infant it not useless, rather it is a package that can/or cause diseases. The butt may cause the following diseases to children; tuberculosis, esophageal cancer or lung cancer, blindness, Stinging, excessive tearing and blinking, Periodontal disease (gum disease, Gingivitis, periodontitis), Loose teeth, tooth loss, heart disease.

Lack of knowledge among smokers on the health conditions that may develop to children due to littering of cigarette butts in the informal area of Zolozolo seems like influences the culture of throwing cigarette butts everywhere regardless of the people being aware that the area has a lot of under-five children. Partially, the write up gives a small picture of the problems that Malawi needs to solve to reduce disease burdens that are persistent in the country such as tuberculosis etc.


Clifton Curtis, Thomas E Novotny, Kelley Lee, Mike Freiberg, Ian McLaughlin5. (2017); Tobacco industry responsibility for butts: a Model Tobacco Waste Act Washington, USA

Drope J, Schluger N, Cahn Z, Drope J, Hamill S, Islami F, Liber A, Nargis N, Stoklosa M. (2018). The Tobacco Atlas. Atlanta: American Cancer Society and Vital Strategies.

Rohit Mahadev Tandale, (2012) CIGARETTE BUTTS: Strategy to Recycle and Management. Paris.

Thomas E Novotny, Kristen Lum, Elizabeth Smith, Richard Barnes (2009) Cigarettes Butts and the Case for an Environmental Policy on Hazardous Cigarette Waste

Thomas E Novotny, Sarah N Hardin, Lynn R Hovda, Dale J Novotny, Mary Kay McLean, Safdar Khan (2011) Tobacco and cigarette butt consumption in humans and animals. Califonia USA


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here