How does cigarette smoking affect the environment?

Smoking is not only harmful to health, but also to the environment

A study tries to estimate the environmental and climate impact of the 6 billion cigarettes produced annually

Smokers not only endanger their health, but also that of those who have to inhale the smoke. According to the WHO, tobacco consumption is responsible for 7 million deaths each year, and smoking is the largest cause of preventable death. But the pleasure of nicotine with its emissions also pollutes the planet, calculates a study by scientists from Imperial College London, which was published in the journal Environmental Science & Technology on the occasion of a meeting on the WHO tobacco control agreement. It is obvious that the report, which allegedly for the first time systematically presents the significant impact of the tobacco industry on the environment, aims to ensure that there is less smoking and less cigarettes.

The numbers presented are indeed drastic. In 2014, 6 trillion cigarettes were produced in 500 factories. They produced 6.48 megatons of dried tobacco and 32.4 megatons of green tobacco leaves. 2200 megatons of water, 5.3 million hectares of arable land, 62.2 gigajoules of energy and 27.2 megatons of material were used for cultivation and production. In addition to cigarettes, there were 25 megatons of solid waste, 55 megatons of wastewater and 84 megatons of CO2 emissions.

One cigarette consumes 3.7 liters of water and fossil fuels 3.5 grams of oil equivalent, and 14 grams of CO2 equivalent contribute to global warming. The drying of the tobacco leaves is energy-intensive, mostly coal or wood is burned for this. And a smoker who smokes 20 cigarettes a day for 50 years is believed to be responsible for the consumption of 1.4 million liters of water.

The consequences are: "Increasing global warming through energy and fuel consumption, consumption of water and soil and acidification of the environment. Global cultivation requires considerable land use, water consumption, pesticides and manpower - all limited resources that could be better used." The cultivation of tobacco requires large amounts of pesticides and insecticides, but also of fertilizer, according to a WHO report from 2017. Forests are cleared and wood is required for cultivation. For this purpose, tobacco is grown in monocultures. Subsequently, the emergence of desert areas was also observed. However, one could also say that the contribution to CO2 emissions is relatively small. The estimated 84 megatons represent just 0.2 percent of global emissions.

Suspicion of one-sidedness

Other human customs are not individually harmful like tourism, but have a devastating influence on the climate and the environment in terms of water and land consumption, soil sealing and buildings, traffic and transport infrastructure, etc. Meanwhile, the world's largest industry plowing the earth receives little attention and even fewer appeals to vice like smoking, but finally to stop, at most there are recommendations for "sustainable tourism".

This could also be due to the fact that scientists themselves belong to the class of constant travelers, while the class of nature and climate protectors may live healthy lives, but like to go on vacation several times a year. The host countries of mass tourism are being rebuilt and inhospitable for some of their residents who do not benefit directly from it, which is demonstrated by the growing resistance of the local population.

Butts are also toxic to the environment

But back to tobacco and smokers. As the report's authors say, they literally and metaphorically burn the resources of poorer countries. Almost 90 percent of tobacco production is located in developing countries. Among the 10 largest tobacco producing countries Pakistan, Zimbabwe and Malawi are 9 developing countries. The largest producing countries are China, Brazil and India, but they can hardly be described as developing countries.

Not only cultivation but also consumption has shifted from the richer to the poorer countries. China is the most smoking country. Here, 3 million tons of tobacco leaves are harvested on 1.5 million hectares of cultivated land. Large amounts of water are required for cultivation, while water scarcity prevails in some regions and 134 million people are malnourished.

According to the report, tobacco growing is not very efficient compared to other agricultural products. In Zimbabwe, for example, only 1-1.2 tons of tobacco could be harvested on one hectare, but 20 tons of potatoes. In addition, there would be more child labor in tobacco cultivation.

But the butts left by smokers everywhere on the streets, in nature and on the beaches are not to be neglected according to the WHO study. 340 to 680 million kilograms of tobacco products end up in the environment every year. They contain over 7000 toxic substances, including carcinogenic substances, that accumulate in the environment and in water bodies and groundwater. Thrown butts also release nicotine and other things like arsenic and heavy metals. . (Florian Rötzer)

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