Smoking is not healthy: that’s no news. Its environmental (and social) impact, on the other hand, is rarely discussed. Of course, that does not mean that there isn’t one.
Smoking in itself is not the biggest offender when it comes to pollution and greenhouse gases. The many chemicals released during combustion of course are not harmless, but in the grand scheme of things, they are not a major source of GHG.
But there is more to smoking than what we usually see: the rest of its life cycle, namely production, transformation, and disposal poses a bigger environmental (and social) threat.
Like many things nowadays, tobacco is now primarily cultivated in developing countries. It may seem like a boon to farmers in developing countries, as it is often considered more profitable than growing edible crops. Nevertheless, tobacco farming depends on the use of many chemicals and fertilisers, and when done as a monoculture, deplets soil of nutrients very quicky. Once the soil is barren, the only way to keep cultivating tobacco (or really, anything) is to create new fields. Of course, more land use means less forest: tobacco farming has been deemed responsible of 2 to 4% of the world’s deforestation.
Because safety and environmental regulations in developing countries are not as strict, or strictly enforced, as in developed countries, tobacco farmers in Asia or Africa are exposed to more chemicals, and are usually not properly equiped to handle them. A study found that only 30% of Pakistani tobacco farmers wore shoes, 14% a mask, and 9% gloves during a pesticide spraying. Tobacco farming has its own disease, it’s called “green tobacco sickness”, and results from the exposition to nicotine, which is basically a poison, while not wearing proper equipment. And to quote a 2008 report from the World Health Organization: “women and children are most often exposed to the health risks” of tobacco farming. Indeed, many studies have shown that child labour is common in tobacco farming.
Tobacco farming is resource intensive: not only does it takes up a lot of land, but it uses a lot of water – all of this for a plant that is not edible, and will actually be transformed in, you know, cigarettes.
This actual transformation is not harmless either. For instance, once harvested, tobacco leaves must be dried and cured, which is often done using the heat generated by wood (leading to more deforestation), oil, coal or gas.
Of course, cigarettes are packaged in paper and plastic, which is not exactly great. But maybe more importantly, the trillions of filters used each year are not biodegradable – indeed, they are made of cellulose acetate, which is a plastic. As it seems to be still okay in 2016 to litter with cigarettes, there are often not properly disposed of and go pollute and poison rivers, seas and oceans.
Well, these are some of the most obvious environmental effects of cigarettes, but there may be many less visible ones. For instance, they are a major source of wildfire (some researchers believe they cause about 10% of them), which destroy forests, release GHG, and kill people.
Smoking is an addiction, which makes it kind of hard to think about alternatives. But who knows, maybe that’s the extra bit of information someone needed to stop (or never take it up)?
Ps: e-cigarettes may seem like a more environmentally sound alternative, but they may still be encouraging deforestation, as many liquids are made of palm oil.