Tobacco: Bad for your health, bad for the environment, says WHO

A new WHO report highlights how tobacco threatens the development of nations worldwide by causing widespread poverty and large-scale environmental degradation.

The health costs of tobacco are already well known. According to the WHO, tobacco use kills more than 7 million people every year and costs households and governments over USD 1.4 trillion in healthcare expenditure and lost productivity.

“Tobacco threatens us all,” WHO Director-General Dr Margaret Chan said in a statement. “Tobacco exacerbates poverty, reduces economic productivity, contributes to poor household food choices, and pollutes indoor air.”

But in a first-ever report on the environmental impact of tobacco, the WHO highlights how this product is ravaging nature. For instance, tobacco waste contains over 7,000 toxic chemicals that poison the environment, and tobacco smoke emissions contribute to hundreds of thousands of human carcinogens, toxicants and greenhouse gases.

Tobacco waste is also the largest type of litter by count globally. Up to 10 billion of the 15 billion cigarettes sold daily disposed in the environment, and cigarette butts account for 30 to 40 per cent of all items collected in coastal and urban clean-ups.

Less obvious but just as dangerous is that tobacco threatens national and regional development by exacerbating poverty. The WHO found that around 860 million adult smokers live in low- and middle-income countries, and that people in the poorest households spend more than 10 per cent of total household expenditures.

Children and women are affected in particular. 10 to 14 per cent of children from tobacco-growing families miss class because of working in tobacco fields, and 60 to 70 per cent of tobacco farm workers are women, putting them in close contact with hazardous chemicals.

“Tobacco is a major barrier to development globally,” said Dr Douglas Bettcher, Director of WHO’s Department for the Prevention on NCDs. “Tobacco-related death and illness are drivers of poverty, leaving households without breadwinners, diverting limited household resources to purchase tobacco products rather than food and school materials, and forcing many people to pay for medical expenses.

“But action to control it will provide countries with a powerful tool to protect their citizens and futures.”

The WHO recommends increasing tobacco tax and prices as one of the most effective tobacco control measures to help countries meet the sustainable development goals under the 2030 Agenda.


Image credit: Doug Badcock, flickr/Creative Commons

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