Tobacco – a threat to the environment. The World Health Organization WHO declared this the theme for World No Tobacco Day 2022 already in December last year. Tobacco is poisoning our planet: tobacco cultivation, curing of tobacco leaves, cigarette production and butt waste – environmental degradation is the result at all levels.
The tobacco industry harms the environment from the beginning to the end of the tobacco cycle, having the greatest impact in the Global South. Indeed, this is where most of the world’s traded tobacco is grown, harvested and cured. As a result, it causes immense damage to soils, water bodies and forests, and thus also impacts the climate.
The tobacco industry’s ecological footprint is equivalent to 84 million tons of CO2 annually, as British scientists have calculated. That’s about as much as the emissions of all of Austria or twice Denmark.
Tobacco Cultivation and Curing: Environmental impact in the Global South
In tobacco cultivation, fertilizers and pesticides are used intensively, in some cases even those that are banned in the EU. When it rains, the chemicals are washed out of the tobacco fields and end up in groundwater, rivers and seas. There, they harm the fish population and the biodiversity of the waters.
In addition, a huge amount of surface and groundwater is needed for cultivation. In tobacco growing countries, 3,000 liters of water per kilo of raw tobacco are taken from surface and groundwater reserves for this purpose. Water scarcity and water pollution due to tobacco cultivation therefore also cause water stress in countries such as Bangladesh, Zambia or Tanzania.
After harvesting, the tobacco leaves of the different varieties are dried. The Virginia variety, the largest component in cigarette tobacco blends, is hung in kilns and left to dry in hot air. This process is called flue curing and requires around 8 million tons of firewood worldwide every year. Most of this wood is cut from surrounding forests and burned.
Moreover, forest resources are also cleared for the development of new tobacco fields. Every year, at least 200,000 hectares of forest worldwide are cleared for tobacco cultivation and curing. The consequences are most severe for the Miombo, a very large belt of dry forest in southern Africa. In tobacco growing areas in Tanzania, up to 6.5% of deforestation is due to tobacco, in Zimbabwe it is about 14% and for Malawi it is estimated at 26%.
Cigarette production: wasting and polluting water
The processing of tobacco and the manufacture of cigarettes globally require around 60 million tonnes of fresh water per year. At the same time, 55 million tons of contaminated wastewater are generated in the process. The wastewater contains a range of toxins, including ammonia, nicotine, hydrochloric acid, nitrate, chlorine, lead compounds, heavy metals and many others.
Before the cigarette is ready to be packed, cigarette paper, plastic filters (cellulose acetate), cardboard and plastic film are also needed for the packaging. The environmental impact of these components – deforestation, water and oil consumption – is not included here.
Cigarette waste: poison for the environment
After smoking, cigarette butts are often simply disposed of in the environment. Every year, the global total is around 4.5 trillion butts. As well, cigarette butts are the most common waste item on the world’s beaches. They contain plastic filters on the one hand and tobacco residues on the other, which poison waterways and oceans.
According to research on nicotine contamination of water bodies, a single butt can contaminate 1,000 liters of water to such an extent that aquatic organisms such as water fleas (daphnia) are harmed. In addition, the effect of contaminated water on fish has been researched: 1 butt per 1 liter of water causes the death of half of the fish swimming in it.
The plastic filters are not biodegradable, but break down into tiny components, microplastics. Birds, fish and marine mammals can mistake butts for food and thus this microplastic can also make its way back to humans via the food chain.
Protect the environment actively
The tobacco industry should be held primarily responsible for all this damage. In Germany, the Supply Chain Act must be further strengthened: it must ensure that tobacco companies fulfill their due diligence obligations for the environment in the Global South and have to pay for the damage caused. Additionally, implementing the EU directive on single-use plastic must make the tobacco industry responsible for the costs of managing cigarette filter waste.
In order to improve living and working conditions in the long term, tobacco farmers must be supported in switching from tobacco cultivation to the cultivation of sustainable crops. Alternatives include food crops, bamboo or kenaf.
You yourself, you also can do something to counteract these dangers. There’s a variety of actions: participate in the trendy sport of plogging (collecting trash while jogging), organize clean-up campaigns in parks and on beaches, or perhaps display an infographic in a typical smoker’s spot.
We strongly encourage smokers to quit. You can support them with good arguments: by quitting smoking you protect your own health and the health of your fellow human beings, and at the same time protect the environment – one more reason to quit smoking!
tobacco threat environment
The cigarette industry has an ecological footprint as large as Austria or twice Denmark.
Resources on tobacco and environment
SDG Factsheet No. 5
Tobacco | Water | Oceans
How tobacco pollutes water
SDG Factsheet No. 6
Tobacco | Forests
Tobacco destroys forests
Tobacco is killing us and the planet