Cigarettes prices have surged in developed countries, in order to reflect their cost on national healthcare systems, as well to provide a financial disincentive for smokers to quit. But although some consumers might object, the price of a cigarette pack is still too cheap considering its environmental costs. According to a new World Health Organization (WHO) study, the tobacco industry emits as much carbon emissions as much as some entire countries, and cause massive damage to ecosystems.
Although the percentage of people who smoke has been declining in many parts of the world, due to massive population increase there are now more smokers than ever before, in absolute numbers. Overall, 933 million people smoked every day in 2015, 80% of which are men.
To meet this demand, six trillion cigarettes are manufactured each year — that’s a lot of tobacco. According to the WHO, about 5% of deforestation in parts of Asia and Africa is performed to make room for tobacco farms. About 20,000 square miles of land is taken up by tobacco farms, which use more than 22 billion tonnes of water, the report says. This makes cigarette production more environmentally costly than that of essential commodities such as food, the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control found.
A person smoking a pack a day for 50 years is responsible for 1.4 million litres of water depletion
The industry is thus exploiting the fact that many developing and lower-income countries have weaker regulations, which allows them to shift the environmental and social burden overseas while reaping profits in their home countries. If you smoke cigarettes bought in a rich country, such as the UK or the United States, you’re likely smoking at the expense of other countries’ national health and natural resources. Almost 90% of all tobacco grown in the world is sourced from developing countries.
According to the report, tobacco companies severely underreport carbon emissions that are significantly lower than those tallied by scientists working on the WHO study.
Researchers found that tobacco is responsible for emitting 84 million tonnes of CO2 into the atmosphere, contributing to around 0.2% of the global total. While that might not seem like a lot, that’s as much as Peru or Israel.
The report compared the impact of tobacco against other crops that typically require fewer inputs. In Zimbabwe, for instance, a hectare of land could produce 19 times more potatoes than the 1–1.2 tonnes of tobacco currently cultivated.
Tobacco also hurts the environment by depleting the soil of nutrients and spraying it with pesticides. Socially, tobacco production is also associated with child labor and other human rights problems. There’s something to be said about the pollution with cigarette butts, two-thirds of which are discarded irresponsibly. According to NBC News, cigarette butts represent the single greatest source of ocean pollution — surpassing plastic straws.
Despite the tobacco industry’s best efforts to undermine this fact, today there is no doubt in anyone’s mind that cigarettes are extremely bad for our health. Along with alcohol, tobacco products represent the biggest health to human health — more so than illegal drugs. Not many people, however, are aware of the hidden environmental costs of cigarettes and the industry that underpin their production.
The WHO urges governments to respond by increasing taxes on cigarettes and other tobacco products. These taxes should take into account the damage to the local ecosystems and the climate. The report also recommends banning single-use filters used for rolling tobacco or the use of unnecessary packaging.