Exploring the Environmental Impact of the Tobacco Industry

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Bird feeding a cigarette butt to its chick. Photo: Karen Mason / Audubon

What do you think is the most littered item: plastic bottles? Possibly straws?

The number one most littered item is actually cigarette butts. Contrary to popular belief, cigarette filters are not biodegradable, and as the cellulose acetate they contain breaks down, tiny pieces of plastic are spread into the environment. Microplastics have been found in every stage of the food chain, our drinking water, even the air we breathe. In fact, it is estimated that, on average, we could be eating as much as a credit card worth of plastic each week.1 How many cigarette butts do you think you’ve eaten?

The Office / Crooked Marque

Cigarette butt pollution is a very visible indicator of the damage the tobacco industry has on the environment, and it is only a small part of a large, global problem. The World Health Organization released a report this year on the environmental damage the tobacco industry causes through deforestation, depletion of resources, chemical waste, and carbon emissions. This report, along with other recent publications, illustrate the ways the tobacco industry poses a serious threat to the health of our planet through the manner in which commercial tobacco products are grown, manufactured, and discarded.2

A Growing Problem

The topic of climate change seems to get hotter every year, much like the average temperature of the planet. As fossil fuel use adds excessive greenhouse gases into the atmosphere and deforestation removes the natural processes that offset these gases, the ability of the earth to release heat into space diminishes.3 The tobacco industry is a major contributor to deforestation. Forests are clear cut to create farmable land for commercial tobacco production. Combined with the trees used in the curing process, a total of approximately 200,000 hectares of forest is lost each year. For context, that would be a forest the size of Yellowstone National Park leveled in less than 5 years. It is estimated that 5% of total annual deforestation is related to the tobacco industry.

The soil in which tobacco is grown can become unsuitable for other crops, which compounds issues of food scarcity in the lower income countries where these farms are mainly located. Nicotine exposure is difficult for farmers to avoid, and studies show that people working on these farms are exposed to the equivalent of 50 cigarettes per day. Symptoms of “green leaf sickness”, a common name for nicotine poisoning, are prevalent. Tragically, many of those who work on these farms are children.4

Young child binding tobacco leaves by hand. Photo: Marcus Bleasdale/Human Rights Watch Quote: British American Tobacco / Report

As mentioned above, the curing process requires significant deforestation. These trees are burned, releasing chemicals into the atmosphere. Once cured, the tobacco is transported to manufacturing facilities then on to distribution centers and consumers, generating significant carbon emissions. Chemical waste made during the manufacturing process often makes its way into water systems where it disrupts ecosystems. E-cigarette manufacturing is more difficult to describe in terms of environmental impact due to limited data, but it is speculated that these products require even more environmentally taxing processes.5

Only You Can Prevent Dumpster Fires

E-cigarette components present a new, unique concern for the planet compared to the aforementioned cigarette butt. Plastic, metals, nicotine, filler compounds, flavor additives, batteries, and the other materials that comprise the 460+ brands6 of e-cigarettes are improperly discarded with increasing frequency. Littered e-cigarettes are a complicated problem, but disposing of these devices responsibly is also difficult. Liquid nicotine is legally classified as a hazardous waste, and many types of e-cigarette must be disposed of at specialized facilities. Due to lack of information, consumers often throw e-cigarettes directly into their regular trash or recycling. There are increasing incidents of garbage truck and dumpster fires related to the lithium ion batteries found in e-cigarettes.

Smokey the Bear / GIPHY
Fraction of environmental impact of tobacco industry by stage. 7

The above graph published in Environmental Science & Technology shows that tobacco farming (medium blue), curing (yellow), and manufacturing (light blue) have the most impact on the environment. Tobacco companies attempt to shift the emphasis on the consumer when it comes to environmental responsibility. They use greenwashing strategies to improve their appearance and send an “only you” message concerning the prevention of tobacco waste.

Greenwashing refers to an entity, namely a company, cultivating an image of eco-friendliness to distract from their harmful environmental impact. Tobacco companies publicly donate to events such as clean ups and run campaigns on the importance of proper cigarette butt disposal. Additional emphasis is placed on “green” business operations, such as the use of electric vehicles or reduction in office waste. As the graph clearly shows, however, the majority of the environmental impact occurs far from corporate offices and before the consumer is sold the product. In the big picture, clean ups and donations are performative marketing.

Natural American Spirit greenwashing ad that ran in magazines such as Vogue and Rolling Stone promoting “cleanup challenges” for Earth Day. Photo: Trinkets and Trash

The More You Know

The World Health Organization, among others, is working to bring to light the damage that the tobacco industry is causing and the strategies these companies use to shift responsibility onto the consumer. Governments worldwide are beginning to put more pressure on these companies to take responsibility and to move toward more sustainable practices. In the meantime, consumers can educate themselves on how to dispose of their waste. The FDA provides information on how to properly dispose of e-cigarettes. There is a county directory of Michigan recycling and hazardous waste contacts that can also be a good place to start.

The relationship between the environment and the tobacco industry is a complex, evolving subject. For further reading, check out the 2022 WHO publication Tobacco: Poisoning Our Planet. The Truth Initiative is also a reliable resource for information on topics like e-cigarette waste. Tobacco Tactics has well researched articles on subjects such as greenwashing. Finally, the infographic below provides a visual summary of the facts discussed above and other interesting, eye-opening pieces of data.

If you would like to learn more about tobacco reduction and cessation, please contact our team:

Melissa Small – Ypsilanti/Jackson Tobacco Treatment Specialist

(734) 329-9223

Monica Allen – Detroit Tobacco Treatment Specialist

(313) 949-2938

References:

  1. Kala Senathirajah, Simon Attwood, Geetika Bhagwat, Maddison Carbery, Scott Wilson, Thava Palanisami, Estimation of the mass of microplastics ingested – A pivotal first step towards human health risk assessment, Journal of Hazardous Materials, Volume 404, Part B, 2021,124004, ISSN 0304-3894, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jhazmat.2020.124004. (https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0304389420319944)
  2. Tobacco: poisoning our planet, World Health Organization, 2022, ISBN 978-92-4-005128-7
  3. Dean, Annika, Deforestation and climate change, August 21, 2019, https://www.climatecouncil.org.au/deforestation/#:~:text=Burning%20fossil%20fuels%2C%20in%20combination,carbon%20sinks%20such%20as%20forests.
  4. Larson, Nina, Big tobacco’s environmental impact is ‘devastating’: WHO, May 31, 2022, https://phys.org/news/2022-05-big-tobacco-environmental-impact-devastating.html
  5. Tobacco and the Environment, Tobacco Tactics, updated 30 May 2022, accessed 01 August 2022. https://tobaccotactics.org/wiki/tobacco-and-the-environment/
  6. NIDA. 2020, January 8. Vaping Devices (Electronic Cigarettes) DrugFacts. Retrieved from https://nida.nih.gov/publications/drugfacts/vaping-devices-electronic-cigarettes on 2022, August 2
  7. Cigarette Smoking: An Assessment of Tobacco’s Global Environmental Footprint Across Its Entire Supply Chain, Maria Zafeiridou, Nicholas S Hopkinson, and Nikolaos Voulvoulis, Environmental Science & Technology 2018 52 (15), 8087-8094, DOI: 10.1021/acs.est.8b01533

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