According to World Health Organisation statistics, there are around 1 billion active tobacco smokers globally, with high demand earning the world’s 6 largest tobacco firms a staggering $35 billion each year, equating to more than $1000 every second. Even with powerful public health messages about the effects of smoking, both in the developed world and in poorer regions, demand for smoking remains incredibly strong. The health arguments against smoking are well-known and much repeated, but smoking also has some major environmental implications, which are often overlooked. In this article, we examine some of those implications, including land use, paper production, rubbish problems and air pollution.
All commercial crops that are produced in volume require large amounts of arable land and natural resources for successful cultivation, and tobacco is no exception. Tobacco is a surprisingly robust crop and can grow well under a wide variety of conditions, with the main global producers being China, India, Brazil and the US. Tobacco farms aren’t generally as large as those producing some other crops, but they are certainly a part of the puzzle, when it comes to illegal deforestation taking place across the Amazonian rainforests, for example, as soaring demand for land encourages illegal logging by unscrupulous gangs. Land that is stripped of ancient rainforest in this way witnesses untold damage to plants and wildlife, and of course, this also means less rainforest remains to absorb the CO2 constantly being pumped out around the world.
If that trail of devastation wasn’t enough, tobacco farming is intensive, using huge amounts of both fertilizer and pesticides, eventually leaving farmed areas barren and useless for crop production of any kind. This leads to the constant need to source more and more land for use in tobacco production, further fuelling the deforestation of sensitive landscapes in poorer regions.
Whilst the actual tobacco crop is generally the main culprit in terms of land use, the paper required for producing cigarettes and their packaging is also significant. An astonishing 6km of paper is used every hour in the production of cigarettes, demonstrating that this concern is not a trivial one. Tobacco companies have moved to implement some paper recycling schemes within their manufacturing processes, but this is a tiny drop in the ocean when compared with the quantity of paper needed to sustain such tremendous global demand.
Waste & The Environment
Of course, some smokers are committed to minimizing the amount of waste they produce, and dispose of their cigarette butts and packaging carefully. Unfortunately, they are in the minority, and most smokers simply discard each cigarette butt on the ground once they have finished smoking it. A single butt might seem like a tiny amount of waste, but it all mounts up and used butts end up in waterways, soil and the wider landscape, with potentially devastating effects on wildlife and local environments.
The volume of cigarette waste is truly staggering, as an estimated 4.5 trillion butts are tossed to the ground each year. Clean-up costs are also shocking, with San Francisco alone reported having spent $10 million in 2009, just on tackling cigarette waste.
Sadly, there is little research data available on wildlife killed as a result of ingesting filters and other cigarette waste, but the numbers are likely to be significant. Cigarette filters are made from cellulose acetate, which takes around 12 years to decompose, showing just what kind of legacy we are allowing to build up in our rivers and countryside. Research, conducted by San Diego State University, showed that fish exposed to just half of the toxins found in cigarettes died as a result of that exposure. Much more research is needed to understand the long-term impact on marine life, seabirds, and mammals, of this relentless stream of smoking-related detritus entering their food chains.
Whilst the act of smoking a cigarette might not seem, in itself, to be a major source of carbon pollution, the manufacturing process of cigarettes certainly is. We’ve already mentioned the large-scale deforestation taking place around the world to sustain the tobacco industry, but the environmental impact doesn’t stop there. The production process itself uses huge amounts of natural resources and produces harmful emissions as part of the manufacturing cycle. That’s followed by global transportation of the finished tobacco products, which itself is a major contributor to greenhouse gasses.
Drilling down to the individual cigarette, we shouldn’t be complacent about pollution, as tobacco smoke contains ‘particulate matter’, including chemicals such as carbon monoxide. The average cigarette produces 14mg of harmful particles, which might seem negligible, at first glance. Go back to that figure of 4.5 trillion butts discarded each year, though, and things look much more alarming.
It’s clear that the current levels of global demand for cigarettes are both unsustainable and unacceptable, going forwards. Global health concerns and environmental implications are both prime factors for driving change in people’s attitudes towards smoking around the world. In an ideal world, the numbers of active smokers would be dramatically reduced globally, but, of course, this is no easy task and is something that will require substantial efforts on the part of governments, health officials and legislators the world over. There are alternatives to smoking out there, but education is likely to prove the best method with which to reduce the aforementioned impacts and create greater global awareness of such a crucial issue.