Of all the planet-spanning industries that contribute to the destruction of the environment, the tobacco industry is unquestionably one of the biggest offenders. Catering to the needs of more than a billion people, this market has no borders and is prevalent across each and every continent in spite of the countless medical arguments against consuming such products.
When there’s such massive quantities of money on the table though, it’s a certainty that the major players within the industry are not about to change their methods. Just 6 of the largest brands earn roughly $35 billion a year from sales to smokers, which necessitates an unceasing production line that has to be fed. Below, we’ll cast an eye over some of the side-effects that are threatening the health of our Earth due to this ruthless desire to profit at any costs.
As with any crop farmed for consumption on such a scale, a vast amount of land and resources is required to grow tobacco. It’s a crop that can survive in a surprising range of conditions, yet the main exporters all have a relatively warm climate, being China, India, Brazil and the USA.
Interestingly though, in terms of surface area, tobacco farms don’t tend to be as big as those given over to other industries, although it has helped to spur on an illegal logger industry that has become notorious in the Amazon Rainforest. This drive to clear more arable land for development, with the widespread destruction of trees for profit, and the continual uprooting of flora and fauna has had a devastating effect on some of the world’s most valuable eco-systems, cutting swathes away in the name of economics. Even when tobacco farming leaves an area, the fertilizer and pesticides utilized in the growing process often leaves the land barren.
In addition to the trees cut down illegally to make room for tobacco crop farms, its important to remember that the packaging of cigarettes themselves use up a lot of paper. In fact, about 6 kilometres of paper an hour are used in the manufacturing process, for both cigarettes themselves and their packaging. This amount is astronomical and gives an insight into just how much fuel is needed to maintain this level of production. Although some manufacturers have put in place recycling schemes, the amount of paper used far exceeds the amount of recycling done.
With the Tobacco industry being so large its no surprise that there is a lot rubbish produced as part of the production process. What you might not have considered is the physical waste that occurs after smokers have finished with their cigarettes. Although many smokers are conscientious, there are many who discard their used butts wherever they are. The resulting debris then ends up in rivers, soil and natural wildlife. The effect is the devastation of local ecology.
It’s estimated that around 4.5 million butts are tossed worldwide each year, and it can be very expensive to clean up. Back in 2009, it cost San Francisco $10 million to tackle the issue. In addition to the above figures, its difficult to know how many animals are killed or adversely effected by eating the filters and other leftovers, though the number is certainly extensive. Research done by San Diego State University found that even a small concentration of the toxins found in cigarettes killed half the fish in their experiment. If this wasn’t enough, the filters are non-recyclable and take 12 years to decompose. From an environmental perspective, this is a very long time.
Although cigarettes may not emit as many pollutants as other sources of carbon, the lifecycle of a cigarette still gives off more than its share of pollutants. The effects of deforestation and land clearance are not the only cause of carbon emission, with the production process itself giving off more harmful fumes. It is unsurprising that given the size of the logistical operation needed to move tobacco based products from the manufactures to consumers, a vast amount of air pollution is caused as a result. The extent of the damage done along this supply chain cannot easily be measured but it is clear that the global impact of transportation brings with it a severe environmental cost.
Of course, air pollution is not limited to being caused by the transportation and production of such goods alone. Perhaps unexpectedly too many, even when they are being smoked, cigarettes and other similar products pollute the air with ‘particulate matter’, which is partially comprised of carbon monoxide. The average cigarette therefore gives off 14mg of harmful particles. Individually this doesn’t seem like much, but when over 1 billion people smoke cigarettes this is a figure that certainly adds up.
What Can Be Done?
Given the extent of damage to the environment done as a result of deforestation, rubbish production and air pollution, it is clear that the environmental effects of the industry built around tobacco are profoundly negative. The only way to realistically address this issue would be for the demand for products needed for smoking to be reduced, and for that to happen, many smokers would have to overcome their addiction. However, as is widely known, smokers can find it extremely difficult to give up the habit. Yet the majority of quitters do best within a transition period, a period where they can use alternatives to cigarettes, cigars, and pipes. A growing number of concerned eco-tourists for example are also doing their bit and combining leisure with helping the environment recuperate from human caused damage. Other firms are looking to make their group and team activities more ‘outdoorsy’ and inclusive of nature, yet it will take much more of a collective effort on a societal level to likely yield real change.
Ultimately, it will likely be education that proves to be the deciding factor in curbing this resolve to strip bare the environment, as studies show that the proportion of people who smoke cigarettes is higher amongst those ‘with lower level educational qualifications’. Whilst that is not to say that the two factors are always related, such a trend around the world cannot be ignored. It’s unfortunate that there may not be an immediate short-term solution, but the groundwork we lay today may very well pay off tremendously further down the line.