‘Poisoning our planet’: 5 ways tobacco smoking harms more than just our health

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  • Tobacco harms and kills millions of people worldwide each year.
  • Beyond this, it also pollutes our planet in numerous ways.
  • The tobacco industry's impact on the environment is putting unnecessary pressure on the earth's already scarce resources.

Tobacco claims more than eight million lives each year – but beyond its obvious health effects, it also has a serious environmental impact that further puts our health at risk through cultivation, production, distribution, and post-consumer waste.

Each year on 31 May, World No Tobacco Day aims to raise awareness of the harmful effects of tobacco use. 

This year, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the theme “Poisoning Our Planet”. The health agency reminds us that the harmful effect of the tobacco industry on the environment is “vast and growing”, adding:

[It is] adding unnecessary pressure to our planet’s already scarce resources and fragile ecosystems.

Here are five ways tobacco manufacturing and use harms our planet and poses a major threat to our health and environment.

600 million trees chopped down

Each year, 600 million trees are chopped down by the tobacco industry, according to the WHO. The manufacturing process also uses large amounts of paper to roll and package cigarettes. 

The effects of deforestation have been talked about for decades, and have devastating impacts on wildlife, ecosystems, and the climate. But many are unaware of how many forests are cleared for tobacco plantations, and how this increases the risk of life-threatening diseases, such as malaria and dengue fever.

Estimates from 2018 suggest that around 2 000 square km of forests/woodlands are removed each year by tobacco farming, usually in developing countries.

Forest loss can act as an incubator for infectious diseases that affect humans, according to an article by the Yale School of the Environment. Furthermore, research published in the Journal of Emerging Infectious Diseases documented a steep rise in malaria cases in a region of Malaysian Borneo undergoing rapid deforestation. 

84m tons of CO2 released into the atmosphere

Tobacco cultivation and production is a significant source of air pollution. In 2013, BAT closed a manufacturing plant in Uganda – and moved its facility to Kenya – after environmentalists reacted against severe air pollution.

Scientists say that the average temperature of our planet is rising at nearly twice the rate of 50 years ago, and that greenhouse gases are a major cause (the primary being carbon dioxide).

Cigarette smoke also has a worrying effect on air pollution, emitting more than 7 000 chemicals. A controlled experiment by the Tobacco Control in 2004 revealed that, under certain circumstances, the air pollution emitted by cigarettes was worse than the exhaust gases from a diesel car.

3.7 litres of water needed for 1 cigarette

The WHO adds that 22 billion tons of water are used every year to make cigarettes, and that nearly four litres of water are required to produce just one cigarette.

Water stress has become a global problem, with reports estimating that by 2025, two-thirds of the world population may be facing water shortages. The consequences are extensive and may lead to economic decline, since water shortages inevitably lead to food shortages.

Nicotine's effect on drinking water 

Several studies have shown how nicotine is an important emerging pollutant that has been widely detected in water resources globally. 

Importantly, growing tobacco involves the use of chemicals, including pesticides and fertilisers. A 2015 study explains how, as a result of run-off from tobacco plants, these chemicals can affect drinking water sources.

Another study published in the Journal of Hydrology demonstrates that cigarette butts, which often accumulate in large numbers in urban areas, and the nicotine released from such litter, pose a significant threat to urban water resources.

Post-consumer waste

Cigarette butts are one of the most frequently discarded pieces of waste globally and, unsurprisingly, are the most common item of litter picked up on beaches worldwide. The butts leach toxic chemicals (such as arsenic) into the environment and can contaminate water, where they can remain for as long as 10 years.

And cigarette butts aren't the only problem: the environmental burden of cigarette production extends to materials such as plastic, paper, and foil used in tobacco packaging products, according to The Free Press Journal

"The weight of all tobacco-attributable non-biodegradable (filter) waste discarded annually is about 175 200 tonnes,” the researchers wrote in 2015.

Visit the WHO for more information on World No Tobacco Day 2022.

READ | Want to stop smoking? Try these 'quit friendly’ tools and programmes from WHO and CANSA

READ | Vaping could lead to diabetes, Johns Hopkins researchers find

READ | OPINION | Young people are key to a nicotine-free future: five steps to stop them smoking

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