Impact of tobacco on ecology

we see the sky through the leaves of the trees

Some key figures

Scientists believe that smoking, and especially the production of cigarettes, contributes to global warming and jeopardizes various ecosystems. Indeed, during the process of tobacco farming, it is necessary to dry leaves, a technique which requires a certain amount of energy. In order to obtain it, in most cases, trees are cut down or gas is resorted to. Both these methods produce carbon dioxide and increase the levels of this compound in the atmosphere, thus exacerbating global warming. But tobacco cultivation is not the only thing to blame as it just represents one step in the manufacture of the final product. We have to take into account the chemicals included in the cigarette, the production of the pack, but also the cigarette butt which is a waste that will need to be processed.

Here are some key figures to help you understand and realize the overall impact of tobacco on our environment:

  • First of all, as indicated above, the manufacture of cigarettes requires wood in order to dry the harvested tobacco but also to make the cigarette papers and filters. In 1994, Peter Taylor, expert in the economics around tobacco had already reckoned that 60 million trees needed to be cut down or burnt each year[1], a figure that has been stable for years. We also have to include the deforestation that is carried out to produce the matches, which concerns another 10 million trees. Overall, this leads to 70 million trees cut down for the sole purpose of supplying the tobacco industry!
  • Moreover, a great deal of chemicals (fertilizers, pesticides, etc.) are required in tobacco farming to grow the tobacco. These chemicals are by far the most poisonous products we can find. They are not only dangerous for men, but also for the environment and the wildlife. An analysis of the smoke produced by cigarettes makes us realize there are more than 170 toxic substances[2], some of which are even radioactive! In light of this, some scientists go as far as claiming that living next to a nuclear power station would be immensely safer than having a cigarette in the hand[3]!
  • On top of this, let’s not forget about the 800 tons of cigarette butts that are left in the wild each year[4]! Not only do these wastes pollute and start decomposing only after 5 years, but they also endanger the wildlife as animals can die eating them, either by suffocation or by poisoning.

Some solutions

In order not to take the cost of the collection and destruction of the cigarette ends upon themselves, manufacturers have proposed several solutions. First, they tried to replace the cellulose acetate we can find in filters with a biodegradable compound, but this hasn’t worked so far. Then, they had the idea of putting more ashtrays in cities so that smokers become more responsible and have no more excuses. Sadly, throwing a cigarette butt in the street is instinctive for smokers even when an ashtray is nearby. Awareness campaigns have been conducted, but to no avail.

In the end, are there ways to reduce the impact of cigarette ends?

Some solutions have already been found and implemented in cities that wanted to reduce the financial cost of managing these wastes as well as their environmental impact. Thus, some cities have decided to fine smokers caught in the act of throwing their cigarette butts on public roads. No study makes it possible to establish whether such measure is efficient or not, but the money collected thanks to it helps compensating a part of the cost linked to waste management. San Francisco officials have created a new tax of up to 20 cents for each pack sold, which enables the financing of waste processing. In Australia, awareness campaigns have been conducted with promising results.

Numerous other solutions could be considered: writing messages directly on cigarette packs, prohibiting cigarette filters or even compelling the manufacturers to pay directly for the waste management.

woman holding a leaf in her hand
EcologyEnvironmentTobacco

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