Sustainable Development

Tobacco is harming far more than just our health

A worker smokes a cigarette during a break at a coal freight yard in Hefei, Anhui province, January 13, 2013.  REUTERS/Stringer (CHINA - Tags: SOCIETY) - GM1E91D1E2401

The price of cigarettes should rise to reflect environmental damage, says the WHO. Image: Reuters

Johnny Wood
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Sustainable Development

Smoking isn’t just harmful to human health, it’s also damaging the planet.

That’s the key message of a new report commissioned by the World Health Organization (WHO) into the environmental costs of tobacco production.

The study says tobacco’s total annual carbon footprint is 84 million tonnes, which is almost as high as the greenhouse gas emissions of Peru or Israel. Tobacco production also requires intensive use of natural resources and uses chemicals that pollute ecosystems and harm the health of local people.

The report’s authors argue that the impact on the environment, as well as the health, social and economic issues associated with smoking, make tackling tobacco an important step towards achieving the UN’s sustainable development goals. Their recommendations include factoring tobacco’s environmental costs into the price of a packet of cigarettes.

Smoking is increasing in developing countries
Tobacco production worldwide from 1990 to 2016 (in 1,000 metric tons) Image: Statista

Growing awareness of the health risks associated with smoking has led to a decline in the number of smokers in the developed world. But rising demand in low- and middle-income countries has provided new markets for the tobacco industry.

China is home to 300 million adult smokers; more than any other country. The country produces 2.5 trillion cigarettes each year, requiring vast amounts of arable land and fresh water resources, according to the report.

Tobacco’s ecological footprint

 A person smoking 20 cigarettes a day over a lifetime would be responsible for 1.4m litres of water depletion.
Image: WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control

The six trillion cigarettes manufactured each year globally take up some 4 million hectares of land and require more than 22 billion tonnes of water.

The WHO study, authored by researchers at Imperial College London, also calculated the environmental impact of being a smoker at an individual level. This included the depletion of 1.4 million litres of water as a result of producing enough tobacco to smoke a pack of 20 cigarettes per day for 50 years.

Growing tobacco often causes more environmental harm than many essential food crops, the report says. Tobacco thrives in sandy, slightly acidic soils, which generally contain few nutrients. But tobacco is a nutrient-hungry crop, forcing farmers to clear more woodland to create new fields.

Land cleared for tobacco farms accounts for almost 5% of the total national deforestation in some developing countries.

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Once harvested, the leaves are dried or cured ready for transportation and further processing. This often involves cutting down trees to use for fuel to dry the leaves, causing a loss of biodiversity and air pollution.

Meanwhile, heavy use of fertilisers and pesticides can harm the health of workers who are unable to afford protective clothing or breathing equipment.

These chemicals can also contaminate drinking water for livestock as moisture-thirsty tobacco crops are often grown near rivers to reduce the distance water needs to be transported.

Co-author of the report, Professor Nick Voulvoulis from the Centre for Environmental Policy at Imperial College London states, “The environmental impacts of cigarette smoking, from cradle to grave, add significant pressures to the planet’s increasingly scarce resources and fragile ecosystems."

The report points out that 90% of all tobacco crops are grown in the developing world, but the bulk of the profits from tobacco end up in the developed world. The authors recommend fining tobacco companies that cause environmental damage like deforestation or water contamination.

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Related topics:
Sustainable DevelopmentFuture of the EnvironmentGlobal Health
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