Cigarettes damage the environment, not just health

The six trillion cigarettes produced every year gobble up finite resources, impacting the environment through climate change, water use and toxicity, a new study has warned. A single smoker depletes 1.4 million litres of water in 50 years.  

The damaging effect of the tobacco industry on human health is well established, but its substantial impact on the environment has now been highlighted for the first time.

Because the global cultivation of tobacco requires substantial land use and water consumption – both finite resources that could be put to better use – the environmental impact includes climate change, energy and fuel consumption, water and soil depletion, and acidification.

Globally, the cultivation of 32.4 million tonnes (mt) of green tobacco, used for the production of 6.48 mt of dry tobacco in the six trillion cigarettes manufactured worldwide in 2014, contributes almost 84 mt of CO2 emissions to climate change – approximately 0.2 per cent of the global total, according to a statement published by Imperial College London, which conducted the new research.

Professor Nick Voulvoulis commented: “The environmental impacts of cigarette smoking, from cradle to grave, add significant pressures to the planet’s increasingly scarce resources and fragile ecosystems. Tobacco reduces our quality of life as it competes for resources with commodities valuable to livelihoods and development across the world.”

The curing of tobacco leaves to produce dry tobacco, or “processing”, is highly energy intensive, using coal or wood burning that contributes to greenhouse gas emissions and deforestation.

Tobacco production also uses more than 22 billion tonnes of water. The report calculates that the environmental impact of one person smoking a pack of 20 cigarettes per day for 50 years is 1.4 million litres of water depletion.

Compared to other crops, tobacco requires significantly greater inputs: in Zimbabwe, a hectare of land could produce 19 times more potatoes than the 1 to 1.2 tonnes of tobacco currently cultivated, according to the statement.

The report calls for actions to address these issues, including encouraging sustainable investment as well as making sure that the environmental cost of tobacco is included in the price of cigarettes.

Photo credit: Rosewoman/ CC BY 2.0

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