Smoking and Agriculture: The Toll of Tobacco on Farmers and the Planet

Smoking is the leading preventable cause of death in the U.S., but the damage it does on society isn’t limited to the effects it has on smokers. The relationship between smoking and agriculture demonstrates this perfectly.

According to the CDC, cigarette smoking causes 1 out of every 5 deaths in the U.S., amounting to over 480,000 deaths annually. Most people know about the health risks of smoking, particularly the risks of lung cancer, cardiovascular disease and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), but one thing that isn’t often stressed is the damage tobacco does to farmers and the environment. In fact, the relationship between smoking and agriculture serves as an introduction to the multitude of ways smoking and tobacco harms both us and the planet.

Smoking Among Agricultural Workers

The first-hand effects of smoking are the main ways it does damage in society, and for the link between smoking and agriculture, smoking among farmers and agricultural workers is the most relevant concern.

Based on data covering the period between 2004 and 2010, smoking rates among agricultural workers – specifically those in farming, fishing and forestry – stand at 20.1%. This is a little higher than the rate in the general population (which was 19.3% in 2010) but it’s lower than in other occupations such as construction and extraction-related jobs, food preparation and service workers, as well as several others.

The good news is that it could be worse, but the prevalence of smoking among agricultural workers shows that this section of society suffers from the damage caused by tobacco more than most U.S. workers. Bringing down the smoking rate among agricultural workers should be a priority for improving public health.

The Risks of Tobacco Farming: Green Tobacco Sickness and Child Labor  

Growing tobacco shares expected similarities with growing other plants, but the presence of nicotine means that harvesting the plant carries unique risks. The main risk for harvesters is known as green tobacco sickness, but really it’s just another name for nicotine poisoning. Nicotine can absorb through your skin (which is why nicotine patches work), but this means that those harvesting tobacco by hand frequently suffer the effects of nicotine poisoning, which include vomiting, nausea, headaches and dizziness.

A study looking at the risks of tobacco farming found that there were 1.9 cases of green tobacco sickness per 100 person-days of farming. One person-day is the equivalent of a single person working on the farm for a day, and two person-days is either equal to one person working two days or two people working one day. This means that a farm employing 100 people will have two cases of green tobacco sickness per day, and one person working for 100 days would suffer the effects on two of those days, on average. This is the main health risk of tobacco farming, but the study did find that using protective clothes and hand-washing markedly reduced the risk.

Finally, a related issue and a big part of the harm caused by tobacco farming is the use of child labor. In the U.S. – one of the five countries that produce two thirds of the world’s tobacco – several hundred thousand child laborers work on farms every year, but the lack of further information means the number working on tobacco farms can’t be estimated. However, some children work on tobacco farms from as young as 11 years old, and Human Rights Watch interviewed 141 of them to put together a landmark report on the practice.

The Effect of Tobacco Farming on the Environment

The risks of tobacco farming to the planet are probably the most serious impacts it has, aside from the devastating effects on smokers. A review of the evidence on the environmental impacts of tobacco farming concluded that tobacco farming has a wide range of negative effects on the environment. These include deforestation and soil degradation (which are due to the farming practices employed), and the agrochemicals used on tobacco crops contaminate the surrounding environment.

Additionally, the process of curing tobacco often depends on the burning of wood. Not only does this further contribute to deforestation, it also releases CO2 into the atmosphere and thereby contributes to global climate change. Finally, the increasing use of arable land for tobacco in countries such as Bangladesh has displaced many opportunities to grow food and economically valuable crops.

Smoking and Tobacco Farming Harm the Planet

From all of this, it’s clear that the impact of tobacco on the planet is not limited to the health effects on smokers. The relationship between smoking and agriculture includes the agricultural workers who smoke, the workers – including children – who harvest the crops and the environment as a whole. This is a big problem for the planet, and there is only one true solution: to help as many people as possible quit smoking and thereby reduce the demand for tobacco.