The tobacco industry is a disaster for the environment
The entire tobacco industry sector is “one of the biggest polluters we know”, explained the WHO Director for Health Promotion, Rüdiger Krech, presenting a report with “quite disastrous” conclusions. The document, entitled “Tobacco, poison for our planet”, looks at the environmental footprint of the sector as a whole, from the cultivation of plants to the manufacture of tobacco products, through consumption and waste.
All figures converge to make the tobacco industry responsible for the loss of 600 million trees, the cultivation of tobacco uses 200,000 hectares of land and 22 billion tons of water each year, and emits about 84 million tons of CO2, according to the report.
The numbers are staggering and it’s more than 4.5 trillion cigarette butts
“Tobacco products, which are the most frequently discarded litter on the planet, contain more than 7,000 chemical compounds that, once discarded, are released into the environment,” Rüdiger Krech continues. Each of the 4.5 trillion cigarette butts that end up in the environment every year can pollute up to 100 liters of water, he points out.
It is not only health that is affected by the dangers of tobacco, but almost a quarter of tobacco farmers suffer from green tobacco disease, a form of nicotine poisoning through the skin. In constant contact with tobacco leaves, these growers consume the equivalent of the nicotine in 50 cigarettes a day, says Krech, who points out that the industry employs a large number of children. “Just imagine: a 12-year-old exposed to 50 cigarettes a day,” he concludes.
There is a report that points out that tobacco is often grown in rather poor countries, where water and cultivated land are often scarce, and where these crops take the place of crucial food production. Tobacco cultivation is also responsible for about 5% of the world’s deforestation and contributes to the depletion of precious water supplies.
Also, a significant portion of global greenhouse gas emissions comes from tobacco processing and transportation – the equivalent of one-fifth of the carbon footprint of air travel. WHO also warns that tobacco products – cigarettes, smokeless tobacco and e-cigarettes – contribute significantly to the accumulation of plastic pollution worldwide.
Even in cigarette filters, we find traces of micro-plastics, the tiny fragments found in the world’s oceans, including at the bottom of the Mariana Trench, the deepest in the world – making it the second-largest source of plastic pollution in the world. Contrary to what the tobacco industry claims, however, there is no evidence that these filters have a beneficial effect on health, the WHO points out.
The UN is very angry with politicians around the world and urges them to treat these filters as single-use plastics and to consider banning them. It also deplores the fact that the huge costs of cleaning up the tobacco industry’s waste are borne by taxpayers around the world.
According to the report, China spends about US$2.6 billion annually to deal with tobacco waste. India’s bill is $766 million, while Brazil and Germany each have to pay $200 million.
The WHO, therefore, insists that more countries follow the example of France and Spain by adopting the polluter pays principle. For Rüdiger Krech, it is important that “the industry really pays for the damage it is creating.