Tobacco: A Threat To Our Environment

An estimated 3.5 million hectares of land globally are destroyed every year by tobacco growing, with deforestation of 200,000 hectares annually.

The global deaths from tobacco exceeds eight million annually. There are an estimated 2.1 million new lung cancer cases annually with an estimated 1.8 million lung cancer deaths globally.

Tobacco smoke accounts for more than 85 per cent of lung cancer deaths. Furthermore, air pollution is reported to cause 252,000 lung cancer cases and 304,000 lung cancer deaths annually.

In addition, the tobacco industry causes destruction to the environment with its pollution and damage, thereby further harming human health.

Its processes, which include cultivation, production, consumption, and wastes have added additional pressure on our planet’s limited resources and fragile ecosystems.  

It is estimated that about 3.5 million hectares of land are destroyed by tobacco growing annually, with deforestation of 200,000 hectares. There are soil degradation and depletion of water, fossil fuels, and metal resources. The tobacco supply chain and sales are heavily dependent on resource-intensive transport modalities. 

It is estimated that about 22 billion litres of water are used in cigarette production annually and 4.5 trillion cigarette butts globally are not disposed of annually with its toxic waste and chemicals released into the air, water and soil.

The 84 million metric tons of carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions released into the air annually, which is equivalent to 280,000 rockets launched into space, raise global temperatures and contributes significantly to climate change. A single cigarette emits 14g of CO2 in its life cycle.

The World Health Organization’s (WHO) campaign theme for No Tobacco Day on May 31 is “Tobacco: Threat to Our Environment”. The objective is to raise public awareness on the environmental impact of tobacco — from cultivation, production, distribution and waste and provide tobacco users another reason to quit. 

Another objective is to expose the practice of some tobacco companies marketing themselves as more environmentally friendly or ecological, e.g. free of chemicals, recyclable, less wasteful of natural resources, etc., when in fact, its activities pollute the environment.

The WHO’s key messages on No Tobacco Day are as follows.

Tobacco Harms The Environment

It is well documented that tobacco cultivation, manufacturing and use leads to environmental harm. The tobacco chemicals, toxic waste, cigarette butts, microplastics, and e-cigarette wastes poison the world’s water supply, soil and air. 

There have been attempts by the tobacco industry to distract attention from its environmental harms with donations to sustainability initiatives, some governments, and even unsuspecting organisations, together with crass attempts at reporting on so-called environmental ‘standards’, which are often established by the companies themselves.

One should be wary of and not fall for the tobacco industry’s attempts to ‘greenwash’ itself.

The Tobacco Industry Should Clean Up The Mess

The tobacco industry makes huge profits from its sales, as evidenced from the profits disclosed by its publicly listed companies. 

There is a need to hold the industry accountable for its environmental destruction, and it should have to pay for the damages and waste caused, including recovery of the costs of waste collection. 

Help Tobacco Farmers Switch To Sustainable Crops

An oft-quoted excuse for not reining in the tobacco industry is its potential impact on tobacco farmers’ livelihoods. Politicians have not had the courage to address this issue for decades, fearing the potential impact of the tobacco farmers’ votes.

It is time that the government and policymakers provide a targeted road map to support tobacco farmers to switch to alternative, more sustainable crops that will reduce the environmental damage of tobacco cultivation, curing, and manufacturing, while continuing the implementation of tobacco control measures.

Is there a political will to address this pressing issue, or will it be kicked down the road to successive governments and policymakers?

Quit Tobacco To Save The Planet

Tobacco smoke is a major contributor to air pollution and human disease. The fine particles in tobacco smoke are risk factors for chronic lung disease, asthma, bronchitis, emphysema, and lung cancer.

Smoking is also a risk factor for impaired foetal growth and several medical conditions like heart disease, stroke, and diabetes. It also increases the risk of tuberculosis, certain eye diseases, and immune disorders including rheumatoid arthritis.

Smoking tobacco indoors is a major contributor to air pollution. The toxic products released into the air increases the risk of exposure for everyone in the room.

It has been estimated that second-hand smoking is responsible for 1.2 million premature deaths annually worldwide, in addition to the prevalence of cardiovascular and respiratory diseases.

An Italian study reported that three cigarettes caused 10 times more pollution than a diesel car exhaust.

A 2018 study estimated that the total global economic cost of smoking from health expenditures and productivity losses was equivalent to about 1.8 per cent of the world’s annual gross domestic product (GDP), with about 40 per cent of this cost incurred in developing countries.

Every cigarette smoked or tobacco product used wastes precious resources. Tobacco smoke contains greenhouse gases, i.e. nitrogen oxide, carbon monoxide, and hydrocarbons, which increases air pollution levels and consequential climate change.

Quit tobacco for your health and the health of planet Earth.

If one is a smoker, consult your general practitioner or specialist on measures to take on tobacco harm reduction.

If one has a family member or colleague who is a smoker, persuade the smoker to consult a general practitioner or specialist on tobacco harm reduction.

One should also always insist on no smoking indoors. 

Everyone has a role to play in saving the planet from the effects of climate change, of which tobacco smoke is a major contributor.

Dr Milton Lum is a Past President of the Federation of Private Medical Associations, Malaysia and the Malaysian Medical Association. This article is not intended to replace, dictate or define evaluation by a qualified doctor. The views expressed do not represent that of any organisation the writer is associated with.

  • This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of CodeBlue.

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