How the tobacco industry is causing pollution 

According to the World Health Organization, in 2012 967 milion daily smokers consumed approximately 6.25 trillion cigarettes and each year 7 milion people die because of tobacco. Not only smoking has bad consequences for the health of smokers, it also has effects on the health of non-smokers with passive smoking as many people already know. However, the tobacco industry has also negative effects on the environment : it contributes to deforestation, which is one of the leading cause of climate change : one tree is destroyed for every 300 cigarettes; it produces enormous amounts of waste and it is also a major cause of pollution, that is what we are going to focus on in this article.

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Advertising for Camel cigarettes

First of all, let’s talk about the pollution created during the production and manufacturing process of cigarettes, as well as pollution created during the transportation of tobacco products, since it is the one of the greatest source of environmental damage caused by tobacco according to the WHO. Tobacco is a fragile plant and it is often a monocrop, therefore the plants and the soil are « weak in natural defenses and require larger amounts of chemicals for growth and protection from pests » (CNN). Indeed, lots of chemical pesticides as well as « petroleum based fertilizer » ( Action on Smoking and Health) is used for the production of tobacco : these products contribute to air pollution and most of them deplete the ozone layer. When those chemicals used for the production of tobacco get into the soil or into groundwater, they are dangerous for the wildlife and they can pollute water that is going to be consumed. Furthermore, a lot of energy (coal and gas mostly) is used during the manufacturing process of tobacco, especially to shred and assemble tobacco, as well as during the transportation of tobacco products : these sources of energy are pollutant and harmful for humans and the environment, since they contribute to global warming by releasing Co2. Once the tobacco products are made and distributed around the world, another source of pollution is created : when smokers consume cigarettes. The smoke produced by the consumption of tobacco releases 6,000 metric tonnes of formaldelhyde and 47,000 metric tonnes of nicotine : these components are harmful for human health as well as for the environment. Furthermore, tobacco smoke contains 4,000 chemicals, among these 250 are harmful, and it also contains Co2 and methane, which are greenhouse gases (CNN). Not only the smoke that is exhaled by smokers is pollutant and dangerous for both humans and the environment, there is a thing called third-hand smoke : it is a long-lasting residue resulting from the smoke exhaled by smokers. Third-hand smoke accumulates in dust, on objects and surfaces where tobacco has been smoked, and it can end up in landfills and waste (when those objects are thrown out for instance) : when third-hand smoke react with other compounds in the environment, it can lead to a degradation of the air quality; it can also end up in waterways through the air, which causes water contamination. Many children die because of third-hand smoke that accumulated in indoors spaces, since their immune system is not that developped they are more vulnerable to air pollution. Furthermore, the smoke released by smokers can highly contribute to air pollution in cities, by creating high concentrations of pollution. Pollution caused by the tobacco industry does not stop with the consumption of cigarettes however. Indeed, a lot of cigarette butts are thrown on the ground, and many end up in rivers or lakes even : these cigarette butts contain toxins. When they end up in some kind of water, they are dangerous for the living organisms but also dangerous for humans since, even water treatments can’t completely eliminate these compounds sometimes : therefore, toxins can be found in the water we consume. And when cigarette butts are actually thrown away in trash cans and they end up in landfills, it releases chemicals : when tobacco waste is mixed with all other kind of waste, it leads to air pollution and ozone depletion even. The tobacco industry is the cause of the waste of a lot of plastic as well, since it’s used for the packaging of cigarettes packs, yet plastic is extremely pollutant and takes a lot of time to decompose.

The pollution caused by the tobacco industry has economic effects as well and it is a negative externality. Indeed, the tobacco industry is responsible for a lot of pollution, which then results into health and environmental damages, yet the tobacco industry does not really bear the costs, and neither do the consumers of tobacco. According to a report by the UN environmental program, the tobacco industry would not be profitable if it paid for the environmental damages caused by its manufacturing. One economic solution to the pollution caused by the tobacco industry would be to increase taxes on tobacco and those taxes would be used to do prevention and to respond to the pollution caused by the tobacco industry : this way, producers and consumers of tobacco would bear the costs of the pollution they are causing, and it might lead them to consider quitting smoking (for consumers) or being more careful, at least with the waste they produce (for producers). Furthermore, many firms that produce tobacco are outsourcing their production to countries with less stringent environmental standards, so that they can continue their production without making it less pollutant or without paying the consequences of it : therefore, the WHO proposes to have harmonized standards around the world, so that « companies have nowhere to run ».

As a conclusion, let’s reflect on a saying by Dr. Armando Peruga from the WHO : « tobacco not only produces lung cancer in people, but it is a cancer to the lungs of the earth ».


By Alissia Leclerc


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