The Environmental Impact of Smoking

The Cost of Smoking

It has long since been established that smoking is a scourge that has killed millions. The World Health Organization (WHO) projects by 2030 that smoking will account for 10 percent of deaths world-wide. Smoking also negatively impacts non-smokers through second hand smoke. The human toll is often discussed in terms of lives lost but the environmental impact has avoided similar scrutiny. The pollution generated by smoking goes far beyond the fumes emitted by individual cigarettes. Of course, it was this concern about second hand smoke that led to public smoking bans, although these only gathered momentum a bit over a decade ago.

Second Hand Smoke

Today the idea of smoking on airplanes, in hospitals, in teacher’s lounges and at your desk at work is a distant memory to anyone under the age of 50. Such open smoking must seem far-fetched to millennials and the tail end of Generation-X. On the other hand, smoking in public locations, especially bars, was triumphantly brazen across the most of the US country until the middle of the last decade and there are still holdout states and areas where exemptions exist that allow indoor smoking. In fact, airports that permit smoking are constitute the few vaping friendly airports that remain in the US. For example, vapers willing to tough out the ashtray-esque confines of a poorly ventilated glass box are free throw clouds in peace at several designated areas at the nation’s busiest airport in Atlanta. But there’s another effect of the cigarette industry that hasn’t yet gotten its fair share of attention: the environmental cost of smoking.

Cigarette and Tobacco Production

That pack of smokes didn’t magically spring from the ground, fully-formed. Intensive cultivation, industrial manufacturing and lengthy supply chain are required to bring cigarettes from the soil to the local mini-mart. The cigarette manufacturing process has a huge effect on the environment and local communities that surround it. Constant tobacco farming depletes the nutrients in the soil and consumes massive amounts of water and fuel. Pollution from living near or working in factories that produce tobacco products inflict a serious toll. China is the largest manufacturer of cigarettes, and it’s hard to justify the countless hectares of land and water being used for cigarettes when so many of their country’s citizens are without access to clean water, Cigarette production is most common in rural, poorer areas of the world. Tobacco is heavily dependent on pesticides.[i] A 2005 study found that as a crop it ranks 6th in use of pesticides per acre and that tobacco absorbs more nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium than any other major cash or food crop. As a result, it depletes soil fertility at a rapid rate. Specific industry practices designed to increase nicotine content, known as “topping” and “desuckering” also increase soil depletion.[ii]

Post-Consumption Waste

Plastic bags and water bottles may get more attention but the most frequently picked up piece of litter on the beaches of the world are cigarette butts. In fact, they are the most common piece of waste in the world. They are not biodegradable and the combined weight of cigarette butts dumped annually tips the scales at an astounding 175,000 tons. In total, cigarette packaging and butts add up to 1,800,000 tons of refuse. Cigarette butts are made from cellulose acetate, a plastic, paper and rayon.[iii] But there is more to discarded butts than these constituent components. As filters, they pick up the toxic chemicals found in cigarette smoke. Arsenic, lead, nicotine and ethyl phenol have been identified in butts. Studies have found that these chemicals leach into the environment and endanger animals and plants crucial to the ecosystem. While straw bans take hold, cigarette butts are largely ignored. This is due to heart wrenching tales of animals suffering from discarded straws and grotesque islands of plastic floating about the Pacific. Cigarette butts mar our oceans and waterways in greater numbers still and this is an issue worth addressing.

The Death Spiral of the Tobacco Industry

Tobacco usage is on the decline in the world overall and most countries at least pay lip service to being happy about this. And eliminating the tobacco industry certainly does sound great on paper. Better public health, less pollution and of course, fewer smoking-related deaths. However, you also have to factor in all of the people whose livelihoods are directly tied to tobacco farming. Where does the decrease in tobacco farms leave them? It doesn’t have to be a zero-sum game, and anyone who would argue otherwise is severely misled. If managed properly, a decrease in tobacco farming and cigarette production doesn’t have to leave millions without income. The health care savings would be enormous and coherent policies could incentivize a switch to sustainable and beneficial agricultural pursuits.  Imagine lowering the amount of tobacco in the world while simultaneously increasing the supply of food. That’s the kind of win-win that gets you the Nobel Peace prize.

What Can You Do to Help?

If you currently vape, chances are that you were once and may possibly still be a smoker. Your ability to alter Chinese agricultural policies may seem minimal (and justifiably so) but you can still limit the environmental damage inflicted by smokers You may know where we are going with this, watch where you throw your butts. Plastic straw bans have been in the news and you may even be aware that there are islands of plastic that pollute the oceans. Despite the headlines, cigarette butts are the most abundant piece of trash generated by humans and a much greater threat to the environment. So when you smoke, don’t flick your butt into the gutter and remember that over 60 million butts have been plucked from the beaches of the world alone. It is ironic that the filters are largely at fault. They may not provide any health protection but they certainly are taking a toll on the environment. There are nuances to basic vaping etiquette that may require a bit of elaboration but the societal rules regarding littering are pretty clear cut. Don’t do it.  Consider donating your time to picking up stray butts not only at the water's edge but in areas where smoker's congregate. It is an easy way to give back and all you need is a broom and a pan. The ground around designated smoking areas does not have magical absorptive powers, as anyone who has seen a smoking area after the spring thaw can attest to. This is a problem that can be tackled one butt at a time.     [i]   [ii] Soil mining and societal responses: The case of tobacco in Eastern Miombo Highlands, 1999.   [iii]