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San Diego State University creates the Center for Tobacco and the Environment

Comb the grounds of any park, beach or city block in San Diego and you’ll find tobacco waste. Researchers at San Diego State University have done precisely that, finding what seems like an infinite number of cigarette butts. They say it’s valuable evidence of environmental impacts.

“Where does it collect? Who’s impacted by it? And how does it end up in the storm drains flowing out to the oceans?” said Georg Matt, the director of the new Center for Tobacco and the Environment.

The center was founded last week to be a multidisciplinary storehouse of tobacco-related research at SDSU. Researchers and staff gathered at the center’s Kearny Mesa headquarters to mark the event and eat a catered lunch.


What’s the center’s mission?

“To examine and then hopefully find solutions to this very serious problem that exists outdoors, in terms of tobacco product waste, as well as indoors, in terms of tobacco smoke toxic residue,” Matt said.

You can see the outdoor problem on many aerial photographs of square blocks in San Diego where people have discarded cigarette butts. Every piece of tobacco waste appears as a purple dot on an image. Rows of these pictures are tacked to a wall at the Center for Tobacco and the Environment.

San Diego State psychology professor Georg Matt is director of the Center for Tobacco and the Environment, in a photo taken Nov 18, 2022.
Charlotte Radulovich
San Diego State psychology professor Georg Matt is director of the Center for Tobacco and the Environment, in a photo taken Nov 18, 2022.

Second-hand smoke spreads through the air and it sticks to all. It sticks to the smokers. It sticks to the moms. It sticks to and collects in dust. It builds up and accumulates in carpets and toys and pillows and mattresses and clothes,” said Matt.

“So it’s everywhere and it stays there. It doesn’t just disappear.”


Additionally, the toxic residue found indoors, where tobacco smoke becomes embedded in carpets and drywall, is often called third-hand smoke.

Lydia Greiner, like Matt, is a psychology professor at SDSU. She said people who have bought pre-owned homes have described it to her.

“Now that the residents have moved out, the prior owners have moved out, we can see on the walls where there are stains, where the pictures were removed. We can also smell an overwhelming smell of tobacco smoke,” Greiner said, repeating the narrative she’s often heard.

“We tried to get rid of the smell, and in doing that we realized it’s not just a smell. The smell actually represents toxic chemicals that were left in my house.”

Greiner said tobacco smoke can be embedded in any material that’s porous. And removing those embedded toxins from a home environment is very difficult.

Georg Matt said studies have established that residual, third-hand smoke can impact the human immune system and the linings of the lungs. The center’s research goes beyond smoked tobacco, also examining the environmental effects of vaping and smoking cannabis.

He said the Center for Tobacco and the Environment is funded entirely by research grants.

KPBS is a broadcast service of San Diego State University