Although the harmful effects of cigarette smoking on human health have been widely recognized for some time now, its devastating effects on the environment have largely been unreported. These effects go beyond the millions of cigarette butts littered every year. A comprehensive analysis of the global tobacco industry’s environmental impact – spanning the plant’s cultivation to its packaging and delivery – was released last week by a group at the Imperial College of London, with staggering findings.

One of the most compelling conclusions is their breakdown of a single smoker’s impact on the environment. According to their analysis, over the course of 50 years a regular smoker, defined as someone who smokes one pack of 20 cigarettes a day, leaves behind a carbon footprint of 5.1 tons of carbon emissions. This would require the sequestering of 132 trees over 10 years to offset. In addition, this smoker’s habits require 360,000 gallons of water – enough to provide for the basic needs of three people for about 62 years – and depletes enough fossil fuels to power the average household in India for 15 years. When you consider these numbers next to the roughly 1 billion smokers around the world today, an alarming picture begins to form.

The study estimates that six trillion cigarettes are produced annually – about 800 cigarettes per person alive today – requiring massive amounts of finite ecological resources (land, water, metals, fossil fuels). From its farming to its packaging using enough water to fill 8.8 million Olympic swimming pools and over 53 million hectares of land – about the size of Costa Rica. In the context of a planet under increasing environmental stress and resource scarcity, every liter of drinkable water and hectare of arable land matters. The analysis notes that pound for pound, farming food crops such as potatoes and tomatoes uses about 1/8th and 1/5th the water when compared to tobacco while producing 2 to 3 times less carbon emissions.

Cigarette farming is not simply a resource hog. Some of the top tobacco producing countries in the world – Tanzania, Zimbabwe, Malawi – are developing countries that lack the agricultural technology to efficiently cultivate tobacco plants. As a result, tobacco producers in these countries resort to over-deforestation and the use of high concentrations of pesticides, undercutting the carbon sequestering abilities of forests and introducing toxic chemicals into local ecosystems. The industry is producing 84 million tons of CO2 emissions each year – degrading the health of the global environment as well. The long-term effects of these practices will result in soil erosion, depletion, and pollution that will leave large swaths of land totally infertile. For developing nations with accelerating population growth rates, the destruction of these environments could be potentially catastrophic. And for the rest of the world, the destruction of the Earth’s natural defenses against carbon emissions for an expensive and unhealthy habit will only make the battle against climate change harder.

The report makes several suggestions for tackling the unsustainable status quo of the tobacco industry. For example, governments could tax the tobacco manufacturers for environmental damages, subsidize farmers transitioning to more sustainable farming practices, encourage financial investments into more environmentally-friendly industries, and help fill in gaps in knowledge surrounding crop production impacts on the environment.

Managing Correspondent: Trevor Haynes

Original report: Cigarette smoking: an assessment of tobacco’s global environmental footprint across its entire supply chain, and policy strategies to reduce it

Press report: Cigarettes have a significant impact on the environment, not just health

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