Your cigarette continues to harm environment long after it is extinguished

Tobacco kills more than seven million people a year and is currently the world’s single biggest cause of preventable death

By DTE Staff
Published: Wednesday 31 May 2017

Tobacco product waste contains over 7000 toxic chemicals, including known human carcinogens that accumulate in the environment. Credit: Max PixelThere is no such thing as an environment-friendly or environment-neutral tobacco industry, especially when you know that tobacco kills more than seven million people a year and is currently the world’s single biggest cause of preventable death. In case you don’t know, about 560 cigarette manufacturing facilities in the world produce more than six trillion cigarettes every year.

“Growing tobacco and manufacturing tobacco products have severe environmental consequences, including deforestation, the use of fossil fuels and the dumping or leaking of waste products,“ says Oleg Chestnov, WHO Assistant Director-General.

Life cycle of tobacco – from cultivation to consumer waste. Credit: WHO

On the occasion of World No Tobacco Day, we bring to you the highlights of the latest WHO report titled “Tobacco and its environmental impact: an overview”.

What does it do to soil and forests?

  1. Tobacco is often grown without rotation with other crops, leaving the tobacco plants and soil vulnerable to a variety of pests and diseases.
  2. Tobacco plants require large quantities of insecticides, herbicides and fumigants and growth inhibitors and ripening agents to control pest or disease outbreaks.
  3. They absorb more nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium than other major food and cash crops, thus causing depletion of soil fertility.
  4. An estimated 11.4 million metric tonnes of wood are required annually for tobacco curing. After the tobacco is produced, more wood is needed to create rolling paper and packaging for tobacco products.

Impact on a global scale

  1. In China, tobacco farming has contributed to loss of around 16,000 ha of forest and woodland annually, which is 18 per cent of total deforestation in the country.
  2. In India, 68,000 ha of forests were removed between 1962 and 2002 at an average of 1700 ha annually.
  3. The Miombo ecosystem (the largest contiguous area of tropical dry forests and woodlands in the world) in central-southern Africa hosts 90 per cent of all tobacco-producing land in the continent.
  4. About 11 000 ha of forests are lost annually in Tanzania’s part of the Miombo ecosystem.
  5. In Zimbabwe and China, some farmers use coal instead of wood for curing. Although it helps in limiting deforestation but does nothing to alleviate climate change problems.

Credit: WHO

Health Impacts

  1. Tobacco farmers spend larger proportion of their income on health care as compared to other farmers due to occupational hazards of tobacco growing.
  2. In Kenya, 26 per cent of tobacco workers display symptoms of pesticide poisoning.
  3. In Malaysia, one-third of tobacco workers show two or more symptoms of pesticide exposure.
  4. Green Tobacco Sickness (GTS) is a kind of nicotine poisoning caused by the dermal absorption of nicotine from wet tobacco plants.
  5. In Bangladesh, chemicals used to control a weed in tobacco fields pollute aquatic environments. They not only destroy fish supplies but also soil organisms needed to maintain soil health.

Environmental Cost

  1. In 2002, the USA’s tobacco industry, alone, was responsible for emitting 16 million metric tonnes of CO2 equivalents.
  2. Unfortunately, there is significant reluctance on the part of the tobacco industry to provide data in ways that would help standardise calculation of true environmental impact.
  3. The limited nature of tobacco manufacturers’ self-reported data poses a major barrier to evaluating true impact of tobacco.

Credit: WHO

What about the tobacco waste?

  1. Between 340 and 680 million kg of waste tobacco product litters the world each year.
  2. Tobacco product waste contains over 7000 toxic chemicals, including known human carcinogens that leach into and accumulate in the environment.
  3. According to the Toxic Release Inventory Database, over 456,000 kg of toxic chemicals were released in 2008 from tobacco manufacturing plants, including ammonia, nicotine, hydrochloric acid, methanol and nitrates.

The world still has to go a long way to address post-consumer waste clean-up and responsible disposal of tobacco waste.

So, what’s to be done?

According to the experts who have worked on the WHO report, the concept of Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) needs to be introduced for the tobacco industry. That way, a product’s environmental impact will be reduced by making the manufacturer responsible for its life-cycle costs. If properly implemented, this could lead to price rise for tobacco products, while relieving municipalities and their citizens of a significant economic burden.

There’s also a need to collaborate to research the harm done to the environment and present this evidence “within the context of the WHO FCTC, the Sustainable Development Goals, and other international instruments”, according to the authors of the report.

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