Governments should legislate safe, environmentally-sustainable tobacco farming practices and hold the tobacco industry accountable for the costs their products inflict on farmers and the environment.
The tobacco industry damages the environment in many ways, and in ways that go far beyond the effects of the smoke that cigarettes put into the air when they are smoked. The harmful impact of the tobacco industry on deforestation, climate change, litter, and forest fires is enormous and growing.
Tobacco farming is a complicated process involving heavy use of pesticides, growth regulators, and chemical fertilizers. These can create environmental health problems, particularly in low- and middle-income countries with lax regulatory standards. In addition, tobacco, more than other food and cash crops, depletes soil of nutrients, including nitrogen, potassium, and phosphorus. As a result, in many low- and middle-income regions of the world, new areas of woodlands are cleared every year for tobacco crops (as opposed to re-using plots) and for wood needed for curing tobacco leaves, leading to deforestation. This deforestation can contribute to climate change by removing trees that eliminate CO2 from the atmosphere.
Litter from cigarettes fouls the environment as well. Internationally, cigarette filters (which are not generally biodegradeable) are the single most collected item in beach cleanups. Material that leaches out of these filters is toxic to aquatic life. To combat this, a bill to ban the sale of single-use filtered cigarettes was submitted to the California Legislature in 2014.
Damage to people and the environment by fires caused by cigarette smoking is considerable and deadly. According to data from the United States Fire Administration, cigarette smoking is the first or second-leading cause of fire-related deaths every year in the USA. Young and elderly persons are among the most commonly affected, and data from CDC indicate that fire and burns are annually among the 10 leading causes of unintentional death in the United States.
Novotny TE, Lum K, Smith E, Wang V, Barnes R. Cigarettes butts and the case for an environmental policy on hazardous cigarette waste. International journal of environmental research and public health. 2009 May;6(5):1691-705.
Slaughter E, Gersberg RM, Watanabe K, Rudolph J, Stransky C, Novotny TE. Toxicity of cigarette butts, and their chemical components, to marine and freshwater fish. Tobacco control. 2011 May;20 Suppl 1:i25-9.
Clearing of land for cultivation and the large amounts of wood needed for curing tobacco cause massive deforestation at a rate of approximately 200,000 ha per year, and the subsequent release of greenhouse gases contributes to climate change.
India banned plastic wrapping for tobacco products
“I will quit if plastic sachets are no more available” Satyabipra Patra, 9-year gutka user, 2011
News analysis. Tobacco control. 2011 March 1, 2011;20(2):89-92.
“Cigarette butt waste is the last socially acceptable form of littering in what has become an increasingly health and environmentally conscious world.” Cheryl G. Healton (American Legacy Foundation) et al, Commentary in Tobacco Control, USA, 2011
British Columbia, Canada, 2003:
One of the most destructive wildfires in Canadian history. Destroyed more than 26,000 hectares, 70 homes and 9 businesses. Caused $40 million in damage.
Lake Tahoe, California, USA, 2002:
A discarded cigarette from a gondola caused a wildfire, which burned 673 acres of forest and resulted in $3 million in damage.
Kula Forest Reserve, Hawaii, USA 2007:
A 7-day fire destroyed 2300 acres.
Hinggan Forest, China (Great Black Dragon Fire), 1987:
Part of the largest wildfire of all time. Destroyed 3 million acres of forest reserve, killed 220, injured thousands, and left 34,000 homeless.
Chernobyl, Ukraine, 1996:
A cigarette was suspected of starting a wildfire that destroyed evacuated villages.
Siberian Republic of Buryatia, 2009:
A man discarded a cigarette butt into dry grass, causing a fire, which destroyed 2000 hectares of forest. He was fined $19.6 million in damages.
Kerala Forest, India, 2010:
A wildfire destroyed 60 hectares of lush forest.
Table Mountain, South Africa, 2006:
A wildfire destroyed 700 hectares, including nearly 50% of the world’s silverleaf tree population.
Melipilla, Chile, 2013:
A wildfire destroyed 6900 acres.
Victoria, Australia, 2009:
A wildfire destroyed 450,000 hectares including several towns, killing 208 and leaving 10,000 people homeless
Common pesticides used in growing tobacco, and their potential harms
As a monocrop, tobacco plants are vulnerable to a variety of pests and diseases, prompting many farmers to apply large quantities of chemicals and pesticides, which harm human health and the environment.
Affects brain, immune and reproductive system in animals and humans; highly toxic even at low doses; soil and ground water contaminant.
USA, phasing out by 2018. EU member states, highly restricted use.
Affects brain and respiratory system at high doses; found widely in soil, water, air, and food.
USA, banned for home use in 2000.
Highly toxic effects on skin, eye, respiratory and reproductive system; leaches readily into groundwater; probable cancer-causing agent in humans.
EU member states, phased out in 2009.
Affects brain and reproductive system; highly toxic to bees and other beneficial insects and certain bird species; persistent in the environment in soil, water, and as a food contaminant; contains naphthalene and crystalline quartz silica, which are cancer-causing agents; used in large volumes in agriculture.
EU member states, two-year ban for use on crops attractive to bees in 2013.
Affects skin, eye, brain and respiratory system; may cause fluid in lungs, headaches, tremors, paralysis or convulsions; volatile, ozone-depleting agent.
Phasing out by 2015 under Montreal Protocol of the United Nations Environment Programme.
Lung-damaging agent; high-level exposures cause vomiting, fluid in lungs, unconsciousness and even death; toxic to fish and other organisms; used as a tear gas in WWI.
EU member states, banned since 2011.
Affects brain, and immune and reproductive system; likely cancer- causing agent, linked with cancer among farmers; linked with low sperm counts among exposed men; toxic to bees and other beneficial insects and aquatic life; contaminant in air and water.
EU member states, banned since 2007.
United States General Accounting Office. Pesticides on Tobacco: Federal Activities to Assess Risks and Monitor Residues (Report to the Ranking Minority Member, Committee on Government Reform, House of Representatives). 2003.
An estimated 4.5 trillion of the estimated annual 6 trillion globally consumed cigarettes [are] deposited as butts somewhere into the environment each year.
This material comprises the
… collected globally during the coastal cleanups each year.
-Thomas E. Novotny and Elli Slaughter, San Diego State University, 2014
In 2001, a senior manager at Philip Morris observed, “Creating social value starts with the product; yet, except to the smoker, there is no perceived social value to our product. …” Tobacco companies tout their Corporate Social Responsibility and take up environmental causes such as the “Keep America Beautiful” campaign, but in reality this stance is designed to protect the value of their business.
In 2009, San Francisco implemented a 20-cent per pack Cigarette Litter Abatement fee to help recover the cost of cleaning up cigarette litter.
[The tobacco industry’s reforestation] initiatives involved only fast-growing exotic trees such as cypress and eucalyptus. This means that the ecologically suited indigenous trees of the region were not replaced in places like Kenya. These replacement species were inappropriate because of the extra care and large quantities of ground water needed, leading to additional adverse ecological outcomes.