Smoking Environmental Risks

When confronted about smoking (by nonsmokers or even their own conscience) most smokers will get into a defensive stance. Sure, they know that smoking is unhealthy but, ultimately, who are they hurting other than themselves? Surely, there is nothing illegal about cigarettes, right? They’re not guns.

smoking environmental risksUnfortunately, cigarettes kill more people per year than guns – and not just smokers, as you can read in this in-depth article about secondhand smoking.  And as if that wasn’t enough, every year researchers find more and more evidence that smoking, and the tobacco industry in general, are harming the planet we live on, causing irreparable damage to ecosystems, polluting water, land, and air and pushing Earth towards a global cataclysm.

Here’s a couple of mind-numbing facts about smoking and the extent of environmental damage and pollution it causes:

  • Fact 1: Each year, 4.5 trillion cigarette butts are disposed of. A generous estimate is that half of them end up in landfills – the other half ends up in soil, lakes, oceans, and forests. Cigarette butts are theoretically biodegradable (they are made of cellulose acetate) but it takes them just under 2 years to completely vanish (which is also debatable as nothing vanishes completely) – and that is under perfect conditions.
  • Fact 2: 600 million trees are chopped down every year by the tobacco industry. Keep in mind that for every 15 packs of cigarettes a smoker smokes, one tree had to die.
  • Fact 3: US tobacco industry produces 16 million metric tons of carbon dioxide in one year – global tobacco production quadruples that amount. For comparison, one car produces 4 million times less. Shutting down the tobacco industry equates to taking 16 million cars off the streets every single year.
  • Fact 4: Tobacco manufacturers use four miles of paper every hour to wrap and package cigarettes and other products – making the entire industry a sizeable contributor to deforestation although it already is one to begin with.

Unfortunately, very little people know about the gigantic negative influence that the tobacco industry has on the planet. They might be vaguely aware that smoking contributes to global warming (and it does, negligibly, since it emits carbon dioxide and methane) but would be surprised to learn to what extent the entire industry adversely affects whole ecosystems.

Tobacco Cultivation – Impact on Land, Deforestation, and World Hunger

Tobacco is a very sensitive plant that requires a lot of tending. Due to the fact that it’s also often grown as a monoculture it leaves the soil on which it has been cultivated completely drained of nutrients. Tobacco requires six times more potassium than most other cultures and once the soil has been drained of it, tobacco can no longer grow there – neither can most other plants.

Currently, 5.3 million hectares of fertile land is used to grow tobacco. That land had to be cleared of trees – and more trees will be cleared in the future as thousands of hectares become unsuitable for tobacco manufacture. Trees are also cut for the purpose of curing tobacco. Curing is a process of drying out tobacco leaves and it is estimated that close to 50 million trees are cut down every year for that purpose.

Those 5.3 million hectares of land could produce enough food to feed up to 20 million people. To make matters worse, largest tobacco manufacturing countries have undernourishment numbers that go up to 27%. In Sri Lanka alone tobacco has replaced edible food farming almost completely as it’s viewed as a more lucrative crop. An average tobacco farmer in Kenya will take home $120 per year after covering all the expenses. That amount of money is barely enough to put food on the table – especially when you realize that labor costs are not something that that farmer has calculated into his bottom line.

Tobacco and Pesticides

As we mention, tobacco is not a very resilient crop. It’s extremely vulnerable to diseases and pests, which is why it evolutionary developed nicotine as a natural pesticide. Funnily enough, nicotine was used as both a pesticide and an herbicide until recently when it was replaced with more effective chemical compounds.

These pesticides contaminate water and soil and there are up to 5 million cases of pesticide poisoning reported worldwide every year. In most countries, laws that govern pesticide use are not upheld rigorously and close to 20,000 out of 5 million poisoned workers die from the effects of pesticides every year.

Most common pesticides used in tobacco industry are:

  • Imidacloprid – Restricted use in Europe since it has an adverse effect on bees and other pollinators.
  • Chlorpyrifos – Toxic to humans – can cause difficulty breathing and paralysis.
  • 1,3-Dichloropropene – carcinogenic – causes skin irritation and respiratory problems.
  • Aldicarb – Extremely toxic to humans. Highest toxicity index of any pesticide currently in use.
  • Methyl Bromide – causes serious environmental damage – known ozone-depleting chemical.

Tobacco and Soil Contamination

Apart from being unsightly and taking years to properly degrade, cigarette butts also have a profound impact on the soil. A lot of harmful chemicals that are in cigarettes can be found in cigarette butts as well – they filter the smoke and hold on to larger particles. Once disposed of, those butts start leaching those chemicals into the soil. Especially worrisome are heavy metals that can be absorbed by plants through the soil as some of them are extremely toxic for humans and animals.

Nicotine is also an issue. Some studies show that plants will absorb nicotine through their roots if the soil is contaminated by cigarette butts. Plants also ‘inhale’ nicotine through the air that contains it.

Tobacco industry as a whole produces enormous quantities of waste. Close to 2.5 billion kilograms of manufacture waste is produced by this industry per year in addition to 210 million kilograms of toxic waste. Tobacco growing puts thousands of tons of chemicals into the soil. Those chemicals poison other plants and bugs (not just pest) and can build up over time, making thousands of hectares of fertile ground unusable.

Tobacco and Water Contamination

Water gets contaminated easily. All it takes is a bit of rainfall and it washes away harmful ingredients that have accumulated in the soil (thanks to pesticides, fertilizers, and cigarette butts) straight down to stream, lakes, rivers, seas, and oceans. What’s most concerning is that all of those pollutants also reach drinking water reservoirs and can pose a significant health hazard.

Marine life is also threatened by cigarette but pollution. Research shows that certain algae die after being exposed to water containing compounds that are equivalent to two discarded cigarette butts. Those algae are at the bottom of the food chain – all other sea organisms are feeding on it and getting the same amount of poisoning, all the way up to fish humans eat regularly.

Cigarette butts are a number one pollutant of beaches in Hawaii and California – over 3 million pieces have been collected along Californian beaches in 2009.

Tobacco and Air Contamination

Secondhand smoke contains over 4,000 compounds, most of which are toxic and over 60 of them are carcinogenic. SHS poses a considerable health threat to non-smokers and animal and plant life on the planet. Tobacco-free policies instigated by many countries in the world are successful in bringing down air pollution indoors but do little to affect overall quality of air on Earth. If anything, they will serve to increase our carbon footprint because most smokers today expect to be able to smoke outside, on heated patios. The increase in energy consumption might be small but it also might be considerable – in any case, outside heating seems ludicrous and is definitely not benefiting the environment.

Tobacco industry releases huge amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere every year which greatly contributes to global warming. If we take into account that the same industry is also responsible for massive deforestation we can see how this vicious circle spells doom for the environment, considering that forests are the lungs of our planet and plant-life purifies the air.

Tobacco and Dangers to Wildlife

As much as they are toxic to humans, cigarette butts are also toxic to animals. We’ve already established how little it takes to poison water-based organisms but you might be surprised to find out that it doesn’t take much more to harm larger animals. The most common victims are beach-dwellers – large turtles, sea cows, and seals. They frequently visit contaminated beaches where they eat, and feed their young with, cigarette butts. Scientists have also found cigarette butts in stomachs of hundreds of others species such as birds, cats, dogs, and more.

Also, a lot of forest-dwelling animals are affected by the tobacco industry. Deforestation means loss of natural habitat and that can seriously contribute to dwindling numbers of some species.

Smoking-Related Fires

Smoking is one of the leading causes of residential fires and thousands of homes and apartments burn down every year because of improperly discarded cigarette butts. Thousands die in fires worldwide every year because of smoking.

Also, smoking also heavily contributes to wildfires. While beneficial when they occur naturally, smoke-related wildfires destroy habitats needlessly and cost people their lives and livelihood. It’s estimated that smoke-related fires cost the US a whopping $7 billion dollars in 1998. Carelessly tossed burning cigarette butts can easy put an entire forest ablaze. Also, even extinguished cigarette butts are dangerous because the plastic material that they are made of is very flammable and can catch fire under certain circumstances.

Tobacco Environment-Related Government Spending

It’s very difficult to calculate how much governments spend on tobacco-related environmental issues but some estimates go as far as to suggest spending of tens of billions of dollars per year. Considering the fact that worldwide government spending on smoke-related fires in 1998 was $27 billion that actually seems as an under-estimate.

San Francisco government officials estimate that they spend over $11 million dollars every year in order to keep the streets and beaches of their city clean of cigarette butts. Larger cities spend even more.

We also have to calculate in horrendous costs of overall environmental issues that the tobacco industry contributes to and that some governments of the world are spending huge amounts of money to clean up. If there was a reliable method of extrapolating the effects of tobacco industry on pollution and the environment it’s likely that government spending related to it could number in trillions of dollars on a global scale.