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How Does Smoking Affect the Environment?

Cigarettes Polluting the Sea

It’s a well-known fact that smoking cigarettes takes a terrible toll on our health. Recently, though, there is growing concern surrounding the environmental impact of smoking and cigarette production. While millions of people smoke cigarettes every day, it’s unlikely that every smoker knows how their cigarettes are made, or where the tobacco in them comes from.

Like every other product, there comes a cost with industrial scale production. The tobacco industry has avoided a great deal of scrutiny on this, especially when compared to other products such as fast-food and automotive goods. This article intends to look into the ecological costs of smoking, and how it affects all of us.

One of the most recognisable effects of cigarettes is unfortunately the litter that accumulates on the streets. However, the bulk of environmental damage caused by the tobacco industry occurs at the growing and cultivation stage. This is similar to how the fast-food industry affects the planet; while we may see litter from restaurants day-to-day, most damage happens far before that.

How Does Growing Tobacco Affect the Environment?

The majority of tobacco is produced in poorer, developing countries. To make room for tobacco crops, vast areas of forest and jungle are removed. According to ASH, in Malawi (a major tobacco producer) around 40% of their forests have been destroyed to make way for tobacco farms. This has a disastrous effect on local wildlife and ecosystems, leaving the soil in poorer condition and making reforestation efforts more difficult.

Deforestation is one of the leading causes of climate change, contributing to 10% of global warming effects according to the WWF. It’s proven that trees help to remove CO2 from the atmosphere. So, without them, CO2 levels will only continue to rise. Forests also have profound effects on the water cycle; by cutting down our forests for tobacco, we are reducing regional water quality and increasing the likelihood of floods.

Furthermore, the space taken up by tobacco farms could be used for arable crops, which is becoming ever more important with the global population exploding. This denial of food growing space means that poorer countries are more likely to experience food shortages, which in turn can damage their country’s opportunity for development.

Almost 90% of the tobacco production takes place in low-income countries. Dr Nicholas Hopkinson of Imperial College London warns of the effect that smoking has on the developing world, stating: “Smokers in the developed world are literally and metaphorically burning the resources of poorer countries.”

The Tobacco Industry’s use of Pesticides

One of the most sinister and damaging elements of growing tobacco is the use of dangerous pesticides and other agrochemicals. While it’s true that many other crops make use of pesticides, tobacco has a larger overall impact for a couple of reasons; the first being that tobacco plants are notoriously fragile and susceptible to pests. The other reason is that tobacco companies don’t rotate tobacco with other crops, which is called a mono-crop. This practice means that the crop is even more susceptible to disease and pests, creating a huge reliance on pesticides and chemicals. 

Some chemicals used in this process are highly toxic and dangerous to farmers, to the extent that they are banned in many countries. Due to lack of protective equipment for farmers and other malpractices, these chemicals can cause a greater risk of skin and respiratory diseases. 

How Does Cigarette Production Affect the Environment?

Cigarettes, while small, take a great deal of energy and effort to produce. One of the most energy-intensive parts of this process is the curing stage. Tobacco curing is essentially the drying of tobacco leaves ready to be burned in cigarettes. This process uses vast amounts of coal or wood to generate heat, which releases a large quantity of greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere.

The curing process also uses up a massive amount of water, 22 billion tonnes in fact. This tremendous amount of waste also contributes to the negative impact that smoking has on poorer countries in terms of taking up resources that could be better used elsewhere. For example, a hectare of land in Zimbabwe grows around 1.2 tonnes of tobacco when it could be used to grow 19 times that amount in potatoes!

Knowing all these facts, it’s clear that tobacco is an unsustainable industry which only hinders the global effort to fight climate change. This has been recognised by the World Health Organisation (WHO), with them saying: “the environmental damage that tobacco causes, on top of its negative health, social and economic impacts, makes it incompatible with the global development agenda”.

How do cigarette butts affect the environment?

Even after cigarettes have been made and smoked, they can still cause further environmental damage. One of the biggest reasons for this is the filters, or cigarette butts. Many believe that cigarette butts are made from paper, or are biodegradable, but they are in fact made from a plastic called cellulose acetate. This man-made plastic can take up to 10 years to degrade, causing monumental damage to the ecosystem when discarded in large quantities.

Concerningly, cigarette butts are one of the most littered items in the world, accounting for around 40% of items collected by coastal clean-up operations internationally. Around 4.5 trillion butts are thrown into the environment every year, making cigarette filters the most common form of litter in the world!

Cigarette butts pose a range of dangers, one of which being their tendency to leak toxic chemicals into the ground and water. After they have been smoked, these butts contain chemicals such as arsenic and lead, which can then contaminate the environment and present a serious threat to local ecosystems.

It’s not uncommon for wildlife to mistake these small filters as food, leading them to consume these potentially toxic chunks of plastic. Not even plants are safe, as a recent study revealed that discarded cigarette filters can actually inhibit plant growth.

Is vaping better for the environment than smoking?

For those who don’t know, vaping is a relatively new phenomenon where vapers use devices called e-cigarettes to inhale flavoured vapour as an alternative to smoking. Vaping is one of the most effective forms of smoking cessation according to PHE, being 95% healthier than cigarettes. While we know that vaping is substantially less dangerous than smoking, how does the environmental impact compare?

One of the major advantages of vaping over smoking is the smaller amount of waste in comparison. Here are the primary reasons why vaping is far better for the environment than smoking cigarettes:

  • Filter free - We now know that cigarette filters are the most littered item on the planet. Vaping devices do not contribute to this massive amount of waste as they don’t require cigarette filters. 

  • E-liquids are better than tobacco - E-liquids do not require enormous crops of plants for their production. This means less exploitation, fewer pesticides and less deforestation.
  • Vapour is better than smoke - In a recent study, it was discovered that 3 lit cigarettes were more polluting than a turbo diesel engine over 30 minutes! Vapour contains far fewer chemicals and much less nicotine residue than cigarette smoke.

  • Recyclable materials - E-liquid bottles are usually made of recyclable plastic. Even vape hardware such as coils and vape tanks can also be easily recycled once they have been cleaned.
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