Tobacco’s environmental impact


Every year, tobacco costs the world 600 million trees, 200,0000 hectares of land, 22 billion tonnes of water and releases 84 million tonnes of CO2 into the atmosphere, according to the report. The CO2 emissions alone are equivalent to one-fifth of what is produced by the airline industry. Most tobacco is grown in low or middle-income countries where water and farmland are desperately needed to produce food. Instead, they are being used to grow these deadly tobacco plants, the WHO says, while more and more forests are cleared. A new report from the World Health Organisation details the destructive impact of this deadly industry on the environment and health of ordinary people.
Tobacco use is a well-documented threat to global health, putting at grave risk the lives of its users and those around them, and even those involved in its production. The majority of tobacco is grown in low-and-middle-income countries, where water and farmland are often desperately needed to produce food for the region. Instead, they are being used to grow deadly tobacco plants, while more and more land is being cleared of forests.
The industry’s carbon footprint from production, processing and transporting tobacco is equivalent to one-fifth of the CO2 produced by the commercial airline industry each year, further contributing to global warming. Tobacco products are the most littered item on the planet, containing over 7,000 toxic chemicals, which leech into our environment when discarded. Roughly 4.5tn cigarette filters pollute our oceans, rivers, city sidewalks, parks, soil and beaches every year.
Products like cigarettes, smokeless tobacco and e-cigarettes also add to the build-up of plastic pollution. Cigarette filters contain microplastics and make up the second-highest form of plastic pollution worldwide. Despite tobacco industry marketing, there is no evidence that filters have any proven health benefits. Therefore policy-makers must treat cigarette filters, as what they are, single use plastics, and consider banning cigarette filters to protect public health and the environment. The costs of cleaning up littered tobacco products fall on taxpayers, rather than the industry creating the problem. Each year, this costs China roughly $2.6bn and India roughly $766mn. The cost for Brazil and Germany comes in at over $200mn. Countries like France and Spain and cities like San Francisco, California in the USA have taken a stand. Following the Polluter Pays Principle, they have successfully implemented extended producer responsibility legislation which makes the tobacco industry responsible for clearing up the pollution it creates.
Countries and cities are required follow this example, as well as give support to tobacco farmers to switch to sustainable crops, implement strong tobacco taxes (that could also include an environmental tax) and offer support services to help people quit tobacco. Health experts say risks to tobacco users and handlers include cancer, heart disease, stroke, lung diseases, diabetes, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) such as emphysema and chronic bronchitis. Smoking also increases risk for tuberculosis, certain eye diseases, and problems of the immune system, including rheumatoid arthritis. Secondhand smoke exposure contributes to about 41,000 deaths among nonsmoking adults and 400 deaths in infants each year. Secondhand smoke causes stroke, lung cancer, and coronary heart disease in adults. The WHO is urging others to follow this example and make sure that those creating the mess are paying for it to be cleaned up. It is also calling for help for tobacco farmers looking to switch to sustainable crops, strong tobacco taxes – which could include an environmental tax – and more support for services that help people quit these addictive products.

This is a message echoed by STOP which says that these hugely wealthy companies are not ordinary taxpayers and should pay to clean up their environmental mess – as well as the health-related costs of tobacco. Reducing tobacco use and holding the industry accountable is a win-win for health and the planet.