The Smoldering Cigarette Butt

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Rodney Warner, JD

Rodney Warner, JD

A couple days ago, while driving to work, I saw it on the road. I was at an intersection, waiting for the light to turn green. It rained the previous night and the road was wet. The cigarette butt rolled silently on the damp road, blown by the wind. I guessed someone had to have a cigarette while they drove to work and threw it out the window when they were done with it. Blue grey smoked curled up from the butt. I tried to crush it with my tires after the light changed.

In college, one night after drinking too much, I think I smoked half a cigarette. One of my uncles smoked himself to death. He died while I was in high school, of cancer. He was told he had to stop smoking. I’m not sure he ever did.

Tobacco is a history changing plant. It’s believed native Americans cultivated it as far back as 6000 BC. It spread to Europe after Europeans came to the New World. The young American government used it as collateral for French loans used to finance the Revolationary War. When you think of slavery in the U.S., you probably think of cotton. More slaves worked on tobacco plantations, than cotton plantations, until the invention of the cotton gin (Plantation economy).

Tobacco’s death toll is astounding. Worldwide, an estimated five million deaths per year are tobacco related, or about 10% of all adult deaths. To put that in perspective, five million is about the population of Los Angeles and San Diego combined or slightly less than the population of Colorado. In the U.S nearly 20% of all deaths are tobacco related, or about 443,000 Americans a year. That’s just less than the population of Kansas City. A study commissioned by the world’s largest tobacco company, Philip Morris, estimates that the average American smoker loses 5.23 years from his/her life due to smoking.

It’s been estimated that one billion people will suffer tobacco related deaths in the 21st century, with a mere 100 million tobacco related deaths in the 20th century.

Long term illness isn’t the only threat. In 2008, an estimated 680 Americans died in cigarette smoking related fires. The world’s worst forest fire (in China in 1987, which left 300 dead and 5,000 homeless) was caused by smoking.

You might also think lung cancer when you think of tobacco use. Smokers are ten to twenty times more likely to get, or die from, lung cancer, compared to non-smokers. But tobacco use has been linked to 14 different kinds of cancer.

It should come as no surprise that tobacco is big business. The World Health Organization estimates that about 5.5 trillion cigarettes a year are manufactured world wide, a third of them being smoked in China. In 2008, the world’s top two tobacco companies, Philip Morris and British American Tobacco, had $114 billion in revenues. That’s all well and good for their stock holders, not so good for everyone else. For example, in 1999, 6% of the nation’s total health care spending, or about $76 billion, was to treat tobacco related illnesses. It’s been estimated that, in 2001, smokers took off nearly twice as many sick days from work, compared to non-smokers.

We are creatures of habit, and smoking isn’t the only bad habit that causes disease and death. But, can death and destruction be more attractively packaged and sold as tobacco can? Will we ever stop buying it?

Editor’s note: Learn more about the tobacco crisis: Did You Know…The Facts About Smoking and the Worldwide Crisis it has Caused? Ready to quit? Get started on OncoLink. Want to know more about cancer risk? Create your What’s My Risk? profile.