Cigarette Butt Identification Analysis

Contributed by Michelle B. Clarke, Ph.D.

The butts of smoked cigarettes may be encountered at crime scenes. Identifying the brand may help identify the smoker. In addition, some brands of cigarettes have manufacturing numbers on them. These numbers may also be present on packs or cartons which could provide further associative evidence. Manufacturers are often willing to provide the significance of these numbers to assist in investigations.

A cigarette butt identification aid was published by Bob Bourhill, with the Oregon State Forestry Department. Unfortunately, the last edition was published in 1992, and the information about specific brands is thus out of date. The methods used in identifying cigarette butts, however, are still valid. In the guide, cigarettes were given a numeric code based on physical attributes such as: presence/type of filter, coloration, diameter, presence/types of ventilation holes, colored bands, and printing/writing on the butt. A suspect butt would be coded and compared to other cigarettes that matched the code. There are several factors not considered in the guide that may be helpful in identifying cigarette butts today. Fire Standards Compliant (FSC) cigarettes are required in the United States. FSC cigarettes use bands on the cigarette paper. The bands are composed of materials that are intended to slow the burn rate of the cigarette. The width and spacing of the bands, if present, may help identify a cigarette. Another characteristic of cigarettes which may aid in identification is plug wrap. In addition to tipping paper, filtered cigarettes may use plug wrap to contain the filter and help maintain its size. The use of plug wrap as well as the adhesive used to secure it may help distinguish a butt. Finally, if the butt contains unburnt tobacco, the tobacco may be analyzed for flavoring constituents such as menthol.

Bourhill’s cigarette guide included only cigarettes. Today, little cigars are becoming increasingly popular. The design of little cigars often mimics that of cigarettes with the cigarette paper being replaced by a material containing tobacco, such as reconstituted sheet tobacco. Thus, a cigarette butt which appears to have dark brown paper may be a little cigar, and little cigars must be considered in an identification scheme.

Utilizing the above techniques may identify a brand or indicate possible brand(s). A scan of the internet will easily identify well over 1000 varieties of cigarettes and little cigars that can be purchased in the United States alone. Maintaining a current library of every available product and its attributes is not realistic given the resources available in forensic laboratories. The identification of a brand is largely reliant on the expertise of the examiner, and communication with manufacturers is often essential in the final determination.

Additional References:

1. Cigarette Butt Identification Aid, Bob Bourhill, Oregon State Department of Forestry, 1992..

2. The Design of Cigarettes, Colin L. Browne, Hoechst Celanese, 1990.