Smoking: Environmental and Social Impacts


In the past we have talked about the litter problem resulting from cigarette smoking. We tendered some solutions: biodegradable filters and butt boxes, as well as a suggestion for responsible disposable messages on cigarette packaging. But really these are what are known as 'end-of-pipe' solutions. They deal with the result of the problem, not its cause: society's addictive consumption of tobacco. We do like positive stories at TH, but this time around we offer a few sobering snippets of info on the issue and hope they might lead to greater insight ... and action. (Sources can be found by clicking the numbered references.)Global cigarette production in 2004 was 5.5 trillion units, or 868 cigarettes per every man, woman and child on the planet . 1

There are around 1.2 billion smokers in the world (about one-third of the global population aged 15 and over). 2. Nearly forty per cent (39.4%) of Europeans smoke, (up from 1995, when a figure of 33.9% recorded.) 2a.

At least 4.5 trillion [non-biodegradable] filter-tipped cigarettes are deposited annually somewhere in the world. 3

China, United States, Brazil, Turkey and Indonesia are the five countries that produce the most raw tobacco leaves and manufactured cigarettes. 4

Malawi, Korea, Macedonia, Moldova, and Lebanon devote more than 1% of their agricultural land to tobacco leaf production. 4

In Africa, around 5% of all deforestation is caused by tobacco. In Malawi, where the ancient dry forests of the miombo highlands are particularly under threat, tobacco accounts for 20% of deforestation. 5

Each year nearly 600 million trees are destroyed to provide fuel to dry tobacco. Put in another way one tree is destroyed for every 300 cigarettes. 6

Globally, tobacco curing requires 11.4 million tons of solid wood annually. 7


Tobacco is a sensitive plant prone to many diseases. It therefore requires huge chemical inputs: up to 16 applications of pesticide are recommended during one three-month growing period. Aldrin and Dieldrin, and DDT are among the chemicals used. Methyl bromide, widely used as a fumigant in developing countries, contributes significantly to ozone depletion. 5

As well as being hazardous to users, chemicals may run off into water courses, contaminating local water supplies.2 There are also concerns about high levels of pesticide use leading to the development of resistance in mosquitoes and flies, making the control of diseases such as malaria more difficult. 5

Tobacco is particularly potassium-hungry, absorbing up to six times as much as other crops, leaving soil in poor condition for essential food and cash crops. 5

Modern cigarette manufacturing machines use more than six kilometres of paper per hour. 8

In 1995 worldwide tobacco manufacturing produced 2.26 billion kilograms of solid waste and 209 million kilograms of chemical waste. 7

Releases to the environment of Toxics Release Inventory chemicals by the tobacco manufacturing industry in the United States recorded for 1996 included (but weren't limited to):
Ammonia 946,155 kg
Hydrochloric acid 407,371 kg
Methyl ethyl ketone 340,821 kg
Nicotine and nicotine salts 900,377 kg
Sulphuric acid 67,228 kg
Toluene 349,622 kg 3

"I used to get sicker than a dog, with fever, burning skin, and nausea, if I wasn't real careful with the chemicals I sprayed on tobacco," says Askins [an Appalachian tobacco farmer.] The chemicals may have affected the environment, as well. "You don't hear bullfrogs or toads anymore, because we've poisoned the streams and creeks with our chemicals," he speculates. He also describes the symptoms of nicotine poisoning from handling the ripe tobacco plant: sudden nausea, dizziness, and headaches. 9

Tobacco is the second major cause of death in the world. It is currently responsible for the death of one in ten adults worldwide (about 5 million deaths each year). If current smoking patterns continue, it will cause some 10 million deaths each year by 2020. Half the people that smoke today -that is about 650 million people- will eventually be killed by tobacco. 10

Cigarette smoke contains polonium 210, a radioactive element. One study shows that a person who smokes 20 cigarettes a day receives a dose of radiation each year equivalent to about 200 chest x-rays. 5

In 1999, tobacco-related medical expenditures and productivity losses cost the United States more than $150 billion—almost 1.5 times the revenue of the five largest multinational tobacco companies that year. 11

A Finnish study of consumer reaction to a possible 'eco-cigarette', found that dispensing with the external plastic wrapping, aluminium foil liner, and use of unbleached or oxygen bleached paper for the box and/or cigarette instead of the usual chlorine bleaching would likely be acceptable to smokers. 12

Tobacco and poverty are inextricably linked. Many studies have shown that in the poorest households in some low-income countries as much as 10% of total household expenditure is on tobacco. This means that these families have less money to spend on basic items such as food, education and health care. 10

... and saving the best (and rare good news) for last:

Mullins says that whereas he netted about $2,500 from his best acre of tobacco this past season, he cleared roughly $20,000 from a nearby acre of organic grape tomatoes. Comment by an Appalachian tobacco farmer transitioning his land to organic vegetable production. 9

NB: And yeh, we know the cigarette in the top photo most likely does not use one of those 4.5 trillion filters discarded annually.

Smoking: Environmental and Social Impacts
In the past we have talked about the litter problem resulting from cigarette smoking. We tendered some solutions: biodegradable filters and butt boxes, as well as a suggestion for responsible disposable messages on cigarette packaging. But really these

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