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Tobacco farm, Vietnam © Sirisak_baokaew

Smoking Isn’t Just Bad for You — It’s Devastating the Environment

The tobacco industry’s carbon footprint is greater than that of entire countries, such as Israel or Peru.

Tobacco’s disastrous effects on human health have been clear for decades, despite industry giants trying to hide the evidence linking cigarette smoke and disease for as long as possible. Despite Big Tobacco’s machinations, countless public awareness campaigns have exposed the drug’s role in causing lung cancer and numerous other serious conditions. Legislation around the world has slowly chipped away at the once-dominant addiction: Smoking prevalence has decreased by more than half in some developed countries since 1980 and continues to decline.

This progress has substantially contributed to cancer prevention efforts. A new report from the American Cancer Society indicated that the drop in cancer rates over the last three decades can principally be chalked up to tobacco control initiatives. A recent study from researchers at Imperial College London, however, sheds light on another deadly consequence of lighting up, which should reinvigorate efforts to cut back on global tobacco consumption — namely, the damage tobacco cultivation and smoking inflicts on the environment.

The Imperial College study outlines how the six trillion cigarettes produced and discarded annually greatly exacerbate climate change. Every part of the tobacco sector harms the environment, from the huge amount of firewood needed to cure tobacco leaves to non-biodegradable butts that leak poisonous chemicals into water tables, soil and the food chain.

The Root of the Problem

The deleterious environmental effects of tobacco farming begin with the methods by which the leaves are grown. Because tobacco is cultivated as a monocrop — meaning that it isn’t rotated with other crops to keep soil nutrient-rich — producers rely on strong chemicals to protect against pests and to fertilize plants. This problem is particularly acute in the low-income countries where around 90% of the world’s tobacco is grown, as their less robust environmental regulations may permit the use of dangerous chemicals that are banned elsewhere.

Once the tobacco leaves are harvested, the energy-intensive process of curing them requires sizeable quantities of coal or wood to be burnt, further contributing to greenhouse gas emissions and deforestation; one tree supplies enough fuel to dry tobacco for just 300 cigarettes. As a consequence, the tobacco industry’s carbon footprint is greater than that of entire countries, such as Israel or Peru. Tobacco production further contributes to a scarcity of resources by leeching more than 22 billion tons of water annually. This is a particularly grave problem in major tobacco producers, such as China and Malawi, which are already suffering from dire water shortages.

Tobacco’s assault on the environment continues after the raw product is turned into cigarettes. Non-biodegradable and toxic cigarette filters — the most common type of litter in the world — leak arsenic and heavy metals into the water supply, harming both marine and land-based life.

To make matters worse, the distribution of contraband cigarettes is on the rise. Illicit tobacco products now make up more than 10% of total consumption, a figure that is drastically higher in some regions, such as the Balkans. These undercover smokes substantially exacerbate the problem of toxic ingredients seeping into the water table, as they often contain far higher levels of noxious chemicals, such as cadmium or arsenic. They also aggravate tobacco’s harmful effects on health. The tax revenue lost through illicit trade — the European Union, for example, bleeds more than €10 billion each year — undermines public health initiatives, while the smuggled cigarettes’ low prices keep smokers hooked. The tobacco industry is well aware of how the illicit tobacco trade continues to fuel their business, hence why — despite paying lip service to the fight against cigarette smuggling — the tobacco titans have consistently been involved in the illegal practice themselves.

Keeping Industry Out of Policy

Battling this industry interference adds another layer of complexity to policymakers’ efforts to cut the world’s consumption of tobacco. This meddling has been particularly in evidence over the last several weeks, as Geneva hosted first the 8th Conference of the Parties (COP8) to the World Health Organization Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC) and, immediately afterward, the first Meeting of the Parties (MOP1) to the FCTC’s associated Protocol to Eliminate Trade in Illicit Tobacco Products, which went into effect on September 25 .

While delegates from 137 countries debated how to provide economically sustainable alternatives to tobacco farmers and establish an international system to track and trace tobacco to ensure it can’t fall through the cracks and evade taxes, the tobacco industry ramped up its scheming. From setting up flashy stands close by the convention center to tout the benefits of e-cigarettes and heated tobacco sticks to sneaking into conference proceedings on press badges to wining and dining delegates at a lake-view restaurant, the tobacco sector went all-out in its attempts to derail the conferences’ progress.

As the head of the secretariat of the WHO FCTC pointed out during the COP8, this interference is coalescing into a clear pattern. Having been forced to abandon its long-held strategy of insisting that smoking isn’t harmful, the industry has turned to co-opting tobacco control advocates’ goals and twisting them to serve its own interests. From vaunting their participation in Kenyan water initiatives to pushing an industry-developed track and trace scheme, Codentify, rather than a truly independent one as provided for in the Illicit Trade Protocol, to trying to pass e-cigarettes off as “harm reduction devices,” the industry has successfully interjected itself into many of the tobacco-control policy spheres.

At the COP8 and MOP1 conferences, however, policymakers made it clear that they weren’t cowed by these attempts to infiltrate their decision-making. The conference expelled industry representatives attending on press badges and recommended that heated tobacco products face the same restrictions as conventional cigarettes. As research continues to confirm how tobacco guts both the environment and human health, it is imperative that legislators and tobacco control advocates persist in shaking off Big Tobacco’s selfish intercession.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.