By Deniz Arslan
Smokers and non-smokers alike are often well aware of the consequences that cigarette smoking has on human health. But what about environmental health? The tobacco industry has been gaining more and more attention over the years, mainly due to the excessive litter of cigarette butts that many people turn a blind eye to, simply because the action of throwing a cigarette on the ground has become extremely normalised. It is because of this action that cigarette butts are the most common form of litter, comprising around a third of all beach litter and up to 50% of roadside litter, as a study by Novotny et al. (2009) showed. However, the environmental threats that this industry causes start far earlier than the waste that stays behind.
When growing tobacco, the required deforestation already poses enough threats to biodiversity, soil health, and climate change. Malawi is one of the nations that has been increasingly facing these issues. As their main source of foreign income is the tobacco industry, they have dedicated more than 5% of all their farmland to the growth of this crop, causing almost 17% of their forests to be deforested between 1990 and 2010. This, in turn, has had a significant impact on their floral and faunal health, changed their rainfall patterns, increased natural hazard occurrences and reduced food growth.
Furthermore, as tobacco plants deplete soil nutrients, many chemicals are applied both onto the soil and the plants to regulate and promote growth, which in turn may pollute water sources and cause issues of eutrophication and toxicity to arise. When curing the tobacco leaves, it may take several months to remove all the water from the leaves, a process that is far too long for regular cigarette companies, causing farmers to burn up to 10kgs of wood to dry 1kg of tobacco leaves through heating the air, as reported by ASH – Action on Smoking and Health.
The next step is manufacturing the tobacco leaves into cigarettes, packing them and finally distributing them. The manufacturer itself was estimated by Novotny et al. (2015) to produce 2.5 million tonnes of solid waste, 375 thousand tonnes of non-recyclable nicotine waste and 5 million tonnes of chemical waste annually. Although the emissions from transport both to and from the factories have not yet been calculated, one can only imagine the scale.
Of course, the consumption itself also effectively contributes to the greenhouse gas emissions as 2.6 million tonnes of carbon dioxide and 5.2 million tonnes of methane are released in this way every year, reported on the Bulletin of the World Health Organisation (WHO). Indirectly associated with consumption are also the threats from the use of wooden matches and butane lighters as well as the many accidental fires that occur, of which smoking is the number one source.
Finally, the waste left behind post-consumption is so vast that the remaining packaging in itself accounts to more waste, annually than that of plastic water bottles. As mentioned previously, the cigarette butts are just as much of a problem, especially considering their non-biodegradable nature, contrary to what many people believe. Due to their lightweight, they can easily be blown and washed away to all corners of the earth ready to be ingested by wildlife, causing potentially fatal toxicity. Even if you were to turn to electronic cigarettes, they contain batteries and chemicals that must be disposed of responsibly, which unfortunately does not always happen.
With the countless negative health impacts that smoking cigarettes offer, together with their many environmental threats summarised in this article, the question remains as to how necessary smoking really is and whether or not a reduction in global consumption could have a significant impact on not only people’s but also the planet’s health.