WHO: Tobacco production does massive harm to environment

5 June 2017:

Today is World Environment Day. The World Health Organization (WHO)’s latest report on tobacco illustrates how tobacco production does massive harm to the environment. According to WHO, “From start to finish, the tobacco life cycle is an overwhelmingly polluting and damaging process.”

The report says, “[T]here is no such thing as an environmentally neutral tobacco industry.” By omitting or minimizing these true costs, tobacco companies can effectively shift their responsibility to the taxpayer, and thus enjoy a hidden subsidy.

For decades transnational tobacco corporations have lowered production costs by shifting tobacco leaf production from high-income to low-income countries, where around 90% of tobacco is now grown. Hence the adverse impacts mostly poor communities.

An estimated 11.4 million metric tonnes of wood are required annually for drying (curing) tobacco which works out to about 1 tree for every 300 cigarettes. Curing was reported to be the leading cause of demand for indigenous wood in tobacco growing countries such as Malawi, Zimbabwe and Philippines. Costs of wood for fuel and renting or buying land are often not factored in when assessing the profitability of tobacco growing.

Tobacco plants also require intensive use of fertilizers because they absorb more nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium than other major food and cash crops, meaning tobacco depletes soil fertility more rapidly.

About 1 billion smokers consuming an estimated 6.25 trillion cigarettes worldwide, tobacco smoke from cigarettes globally release significant amounts of toxicants and pollutants directly into the environment.

Between 340 and 680 million kilograms of waste tobacco products are released into the environment each year. But it is not just the volume of this waste that is a problem. Tobacco product waste also contain over 7000 toxic chemicals, including carcinogens, which leach into and accumulate in the environment.

Other waste such as 2 million tonnes of paper, ink, cellophane, foil and glue are used in tobacco product packaging. This waste ends up everywhere, including on streets, in drains, rivers and the sea.

Studies have also shown that harmful chemicals such as nicotine, arsenic, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) and heavy metals leach from discarded tobacco product waste, and can be acutely toxic to aquatic organisms such as fish.

Tobacco companies admit that manufacturing is the most environmentally damaging step of tobacco

Production. By not including this environmental impact as damage for which the tobacco companies should pay, governments and people are inadvertently subsidizing tobacco production.

A recent report by the United Nations Environmental Programme found that many major industries, including tobacco, would not be profitable if they paid for the environmental impacts of their manufacturing. The tobacco industry’s position is that the responsibility of cigarette waste belongs to the smoker.

Holding the tobacco industry accountable – everywhere, not just in countries where environmental concerns have high visibility – and establishing a core set of environmental indicators is vital to obtain an assessment of the product’s true cost and to start taking action to reduce it.

According to WHO, EPR principles include:

  • Adopting EPR regulations requiring tobacco producers to finance independent stewardship organizations to prevent, reduce and mitigate tobacco product waste.
  • Extend regulations and tax policy on tobacco products and sales to eliminate single-use filters – including any biodegradable varieties – to reduce post-consumption waste.

Tobacco companies should not be allowed to get away scot-free. They should, at the very least, be required to compensate for the environmental harms they cause to reduce the long-term, global environmental impact caused by their business.