Smoking’s harms to users are well-known and widely-accepted, but smoking hurts more than just smokers. Through deforestation, cigarette butt litter and air pollution, it harms the entire planet.
Tobacco use causes almost six million deaths per year, according to the CDC, and harms nearly every organ in the body. Thankfully, almost everybody is now aware of this, but the full scope of the harm caused by tobacco can’t be appreciated without considering the impact smoking has on the environment. This is a multi-faceted issue, with the link between smoking and the environment encompassing issues related to air pollution, the impacts of the growing of tobacco and the effect of the widespread littering of cigarette butts. If nothing else, this all goes to show that a tobacco-free world would be greener, too.
Smoking and Air Pollution
Second-hand smoke is widely recognized as a cause of disease in both humans and animals, but for the issue of smoking and the environment, the most important impact is how it affects air quality overall. Air pollution comes from a variety of sources, but some are more avoidable than others. For instance, pollution from vehicles is a significant issue for air quality around the world, but with so many people depending on cars, trucks and other pollution sources for their jobs and to transport materials they need, this is a hard issue to solve.
Smoking, however, is not necessary for the functioning of society, and in general is detrimental to it. Abundant evidence from various sources show marked improvements in air quality when smoking is banned. For example, when New York instituted a state-wide smoke-free law, levels of fine particulate matter in 20 locations studied decreased by 84%, and many other locations show similar results around the world.
The Impact of Tobacco Growing and Deforestation
Arguably the most important thing for the relationship between smoking and the environment is the impact of growing tobacco. Firstly, tobacco is grown as a mono-crop, and this means that large amounts of fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides are used when growing it. This can be hazardous to the environment, but the biggest issue is the risks to workers on tobacco farms. This can be mitigated with strong regulations, but tobacco is often grown in countries with very few controls to protect workers.
However, the biggest impact of smoking on the environment is deforestation. This occurs both to provide land for the growing of tobacco, but also to supply wood which is burned during the flue-curing process many tobaccos go through. In total, it’s estimated that 200,000 hectares of land are cleared annually to make room for tobacco cultivation.
The combined impacts of these two contributors to deforestation in countries like Tanzania make tobacco cultivation a particular issue. In Tanzania, four-fifths of the tobacco grown there is flue-cured, leading to a total of over 61,000 hectares of forested land being cleared for the purpose. The process of burning wood also releases CO2, so flue-curing directly contributes to global climate change.
Cigarette Butt Litter and the Environment
There is yet another issue related to smoking and the environment, and this relates to what happens to the remainders of cigarettes after they’re smoked. Cigarette butts are one of the most littered items throughout the world, with an estimated 4 trillion butts littered across the world each year.
Cigarette butts are not biodegradable, but they do break into smaller pieces under the influence of ultraviolet radiation from the sun. Cigarette butts also leach chemicals such as nicotine, arsenic, heavy metals and others like ethylphenol into the environment. As well as the direct effects on animals who ingest the cigarette butts, the chemicals released into the environment can indirectly damage animals, particularly marine animals. This is more serious because even cigarettes thrown onto the street far away from bodies of water can get swept into drains and find their way into the water system.
Reducing the Environmental Impacts of Tobacco
Smoking and the environment are intimately linked, and coming up with a way to solve the various problems should be a priority. The simplest solution is to reduce the number of smokers in society. This would reduce the demand for tobacco, which would eventually lead to less of it being grown, and also to less cigarette butts being littered.
However, there are other, more targeted strategies that can be used. For example, providing more places for smokers to dispose of their cigarette butts would reduce the issue of littering, and establishing rules governing the use of pesticides on tobacco farms could help exposed workers.
It’s important to remember, though, that the impacts of smoking on the environment are wide-ranging and hard to tackle. As challenging as it may be, the most reliable solution to the problem is to take steps to move towards a smoke-free world.