How Does the Tobacco Industry Affect the Environment? New Brief Sheds Insight

Everyone knows that smoking harms human health. It is the leading cause of preventable death in the world and is responsible for one-fifth of all deaths in the U.S. every year.

But a growing body of advocacy and research is shining a light on how the tobacco industry harms the environment as well. The latest addition to this emerging awareness is a brief published this month by STOP, a tobacco industry watchdog. 

“Big tobacco hinders … our environmental goals for the planet and it needs to be held liable for the damage done,” Deborah Sy, who heads Global Public Policy and Strategies for STOP-partner the Global Center for Good Governance in Tobacco Control (GGTC) and helped prepare the brief, tells Treehugger. 

A Lifecycle of Harm

The new report details how cigarettes harm the environment from their production through to their disposal, focusing on five main impacts:

  1. Land-Use Change: Tobacco growers favor virgin land, and unsustainable farming practices mean that cleared woodlands are not given time to recover. Because of this, tobacco-growing is now responsible for 5% of deforestation worldwide and as much as 30% of deforestation in tobacco-growing countries. 
  2. Charred Wood: Trees are also cut down to be used as fuel to “flue cure” tobacco leaves and to make the matches used to light cigarettes. Overall, tobacco production destroys 200,000 hectares of wood biomass a year, and this tree loss further contributes to erosion and water scarcity.
  3. Agrichemicals: Tobacco is one of the world’s top 10 crops for fertilizer use and also relies on toxic pesticides. Both can pollute the surrounding environment. The pesticide chloropicrin, for example, can damage the lungs and is harmful to fish and other living creatures.
  4. Dangerous Waste: Cigarette butts are the most littered item on Earth, with 4.5 trillion of them entering the environment every year. Because cigarette filters are made of plastic and contain toxic chemicals, they contribute to both the plastic pollution crisis and leach arsenic, lead, and ethyl phenol into waterways. Lighters and e-cigarettes also contain harmful materials that are difficult to dispose of safely. 
  5. Fire Starters: Cigarettes are the leading cause of accidental fires in the U.S., including wildfires. They also ignite between 8 to 10% of U.S. fires in total.

The new brief isn’t the first to reach these conclusions. 

Thomas Novotny, Emeritus Professor of Global Health in the Division of Epidemiology and Biostatistics and an Adjunct Professor of Family Medicine and Public Health at the University of California, San Diego, who was not involved with the brief, has been researching the environmental impacts of cigarettes for the last 10 to 15 years. He summed up the footprint of the tobacco industry in similar terms.

“There’s a whole lifecycle of environmental harm,” he tells Treehugger.

Filters Out

Novotny’s career is one example of how awareness of smoking’s environmental impact is on the rise.

“I think it’s increased considerably over the last decade or so,” he tells Treehugger.

For example, just this year he said he spoke about his work at six to eight environmental conferences.

The bulk of Novotny’s research has focused on tobacco product waste, including cigarette butts. This research has drawn Novotny’s attention to the problem of cigarette filters.

“The filter on 99.8% of all commercial cigarettes sold in this country is made of cellulose acetate, a non-biodegradable plant-based plastic,” Novotny says. “And it has no health benefit.”

Research indicates that cigarette filters contribute to the microplastic pollution problem. One study published in March calculated that these filters might release 0.3 million tons of plastic microfibers into aquatic environments every year. Once there, there is concern that cigarette-based microplastics might be more likely to contain toxic chemicals that can bioaccumulate up the food chain. 

“The plastic bottle hasn’t been combusted,” Novotny explains. Filters, on the other hand, “are combustible products that produce measurable quantities of carcinogens and poisons.”

Yet smokers and non-smokers alike have the mistaken impression that smoking filtered cigarettes is safer. This, Novotny says, is not the case. In fact, all a filter does is make it easier to smoke, and therefore to inhale the smoke more deeply.

In recent years, the incidence of an aggressive form of lung cancer known as adenocarcinoma has increased, even as smoking and overall lung cancer rates have declined. This is because cigarette design changes over the past 60 years, including the filter, have allowed smokers to inhale smoke more deeply into the periphery of the lungs. 

“I think it’s a health hazard,” Novotny says of the filter. “It should be banned on that basis. It’s an environmental hazard, because it’s plastic, so why do we need it?”

This idea has caught on in recent years: two attempts to ban filtered cigarettes died in committee in California. New York also made a failed attempt and New Zealand is in the midst of another. In the meantime, Novotny says those who don’t quit smoking altogether should opt for unfiltered cigarettes and should be more mindful of their waste. Three-fourths of smokers admit to littering their butts on the ground. 

He says it was important to educate people that “it’s not good to throw your butts into the environment, it’s not part of the ritual, you’re not doing a favor by stomping out your butt on the sidewalk, you’re causing harm.”

The Polluter Pays

Sy, however, cautions against putting too much emphasis on the behavior of individual smokers. In addition to documenting the harms caused by the making and disposal of cigarettes, her brief also emphasizes the ways in which the tobacco industry avoids responsibility for its actions, such as engaging in Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) activities that greenwash their behavior. 

One such strategy is shifting the blame onto consumers. This is especially egregious in poorer countries, where the majority of tobacco is grown and produced and where tobacco companies now make most of their money. In these countries, Sy explains, there are not enough resources to help people quit smoking once they are addicted. Further, the waste infrastructure in developing countries is such that even if a smoker is responsible and bins their butt, there is no guarantee it won’t end up in the ocean anyway.

The fact that smoking is an addiction encouraged by aggressive marketing makes the problem of filter litter slightly different from the broader issue of plastic pollution. 

“Smokers are addicted to cigarettes, they’re not addicted to straws,” Sy says.

But in other ways, the solution to both types of litter might be the same. The movement to control plastic pollution is increasingly calling for something called Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR), in which the makers of a product pay for and handle its recycling and disposal. This is a central provision of the Break Free from Plastic Pollution Act, for example, which was reintroduced to the U.S. legislature this spring. 

STOP’s brief calls for the same principle to be applied to the tobacco industry.

“Instead of placing the responsibility on consumers, the responsibility for the product throughout its lifecycle must be placed on the tobacco manufacturers,” the brief states. 

In general, Sy holds up the World Health Organization Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (WHO FCTC) as a model for how governments should regulate the tobacco industry. This includes Article 19, which calls on treaty signatories to hold tobacco companies liable for the damage they cause. However, Sy acknowledges that for less wealthy countries, taking large corporations to court isn’t feasible. Instead, she says, they can apply the polluter pays principle through taxes. 

“I think that’s a more efficient way to do it,” Sy says. 

Novotny’s home state of California has had some success in this regard. Its effective tobacco control program has been funded by a tobacco tax initiated in 1988. 

“[T]hat has allowed them … to make much more progress than the nation as a whole,” he says. 

Joining of Forces

Beyond individual action and government regulation, both Novotny and Sy argued for, in Novotny’s words, a “joining of forces” between public health advocates and environmentalists on the issue of tobacco. 

Combining these concerns, Novotny says, “makes sense to more than just the usual audience of physicians and public health workers and appeals to especially the young people who are concerned about the environment and also to people who don’t want to lose the pristine value of our beaches, or forests, our parks, even our street corners to this unnecessary pollutant.” 

Sy further called on environmental groups to take the lead. 

“It’s the environment sector that understands these areas more and knows how to move forward with it,” she says.

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