5 Ways Smoking Harms The Environment As Much As Plastic – or Worse!

By Jody McCutcheon

You know what’s funny? I know a lot of radical people: anti-war, distrusting of the government, against GMOs and big food corporations, skeptical about big pharma, and very concerned about climate change….and yet, they smoke.

They have many excuses for this: ‘It’s not as bad as people say it is’. ‘I roll my own, so I don’t support the big brands’. And that old chestnut: ‘But I’m only hurting myself.’

Sorry, but “I’m only hurting myself” may as well substitute “fooling” for “hurting,” because smoking harms the environment–badly. The entire lifecycle of tobacco products, from crop growth to discarded butt, creates a deeply negative ecological impact. In fact, cigarette butts have been called ‘worse than plastic’ for polluting the oceans.

Still not convinced? Keep reading.

1. A major cause of deforestation

The cycle of pollution by cigarettes begins with tobacco farming, which promotes deforestation and desertification. Tobacco farms require cleared land to grow crops. Then more wood is needed: to dry and cure the tobacco leaves by fire (quicker than using sun and air), to build the curing barn itself, and to make paper tubes and cardboard packaging for those trillions of cigarettes produced annually. All told, an estimated 200,000 hectares of forest succumbs yearly to tobacco interests (600 million trees alone for curing and drying fires), mainly in developing countries in Africa, Asia and the Caribbean–where environmental laws are terribly lax, if at all existent.

Tobacco farming accounts for about 1% of land use, yet causes a disproportionate 2-4% of global deforestation. By eliminating so many trees – those great absorbers of carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas – tobacco farming significantly contributes to global warming and climate change. Much of this deforestation is done slash-and-burn style, in which farmers burn the trees they fell, releasing even more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

Ways Smoking Harms The Environment

2. Desertification and Pollution

Just as bad, intensive tobacco farming depletes essential nutrients like potassium, nitrogen and phosphorus from the soil. In the long term, especially with no crop rotation, this disrupts the soil’s nutrient balance and can lead to desertification. But we’ve known this since 1962, when Indian Agricultural Research Institute scientists discovered that tobacco causes the highest soil erosion rate of any crop planted in arid regions (where tobacco thrives). Look no further than northwest Uganda’s tobacco fields, which suffer from obvious topsoil loss(1).

Methyl bromide is another common but worrisome pesticide, as it releases elemental bromine, a huge contributor to ozone depletion. As per the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer, the use of methyl bromide will be phased out by 2015. Even nicotine itself works as an insecticide, usually in derivative form, such as imidacloprid. As toxic as nicotine can be to humans, it’s even more toxic to birds, fish and insects, particularly honey bees(1).

Tobacco pesticides launch their main environmental assault from discarded cigarette butts/filters, which are the world’s biggest litter source. Discarded butts carry with them many of the toxins involved in tobacco production, including pesticide chemicals. These leach into rivers, streams and lakes, thus harming marine life and entering the water supply and food chain. (More on this later.)

Ways Smoking Harms The Environment

3. Even filthier air

Obviously,  Air pollution is another serious consequence of smoking. Tobacco smoke contains over 170 toxins, including arsenic, benzene and hydrogen cyanide. Thirty-three of these toxins are classified as hazardous air pollutants and 67 are known human or animal carcinogens. Also present are trace amounts of radioactive material, as the tobacco plant absorbs lead-210 and polonium-210 from the soil in which it grows. Radiation is released into the atmosphere when cigarettes are smoked, and can also leach into soil and water through discarded butts.

It seems logical to assume that outdoor air pollution levels would increase when tobacco smoke is introduced; and indeed, pollution levels rise significantly around active smokers. While the current EPA standard for average outdoor levels of particulate air pollution is 35 micrograms per cubic metre of air, a Stanford University study measured levels as high as 300 micrograms per cubic metre from just one cigarette. Worldwide bans on indoor smoking have driven smokers outside, which will surely add to air pollution levels.

As an example of how small acts can make a difference, whether positive or negative, consider this: each small cigarette smoked actually contributes to climate change. Each year, smoking releases an estimated 2.6 billion kilograms of carbon dioxide into the air, and about 5.2 billion kilograms of methane, another greenhouse gas. A far more insidious means of eco-damage also deserves mention here: the tobacco industry played a significant role in promoting doubt about climate-change evidence, thus hindering real progress in the fight against climate change. Cigarettes also produce nitrogen oxide, a main culprit behind urban smog formation. Any way you look at it, cigarette smoking is bad for air quality, indoors or out.

Ways Smoking Harms The Environment

Smoking also contributes to water and land pollution. As mentioned, cigarette butts are the world’s number one source of litter. Contrary to what may be popular belief, they don’t biodegrade. They’re made of cellulose acetate, a synthetic fibre that takes as long as twelve years to decompose. So butts end up on the ground and in bodies of water, where the toxins trapped in them leach out and harm wildlife. Along with pesticides and radiation, cigarette butts also contain heavy metals, such as barium, chromium and lead. These come from the soil during tobacco growth and can leach into waterways and poison marine life. A 2011 study showed that leachate from one cigarette butt will kill half the exposed fish in a controlled environment.

Worldwide, almost five trillion butts are littered each year. Estimates put the number of discarded butts in the UK alone at 200 million per day. In 2008, the International Coastal Cleanup collected 3.2 million butts from the world’s beaches and inland waterways, while the 2010 Cleanup netted closed to 2 million. Hopefully the decrease in number means fewer people are littering butts–or better yet, fewer people are smoking.

Ways Smoking Harms The Environment

4. Forests and houses up in smoke

Tobacco gives us deforestation and desertification. It creates leachates of pesticides, radiation and heavy metals that lead to air, land and water pollution. But the most direct and preventable catastrophe the smoking of tobacco causes – catastrophic at least to the affected creatures and habitats – is fire. Carelessly discarded butts are responsible for perhaps 10% of the world’s forest fires. This may be the saddest statistic of all. While the other detriments discussed here spring from production and consumption of the tobacco product itself, forest fires require an external ingredient: human carelessness. In fact, cigarette smoking is exactly that: an act of human carelessness. Perhaps with more thoughtfulness will come less smoking.

Ways Smoking Harms The Environment

5. Contaminating the oceans and sea animals more than you think

According to Whales Alive, each cigarette contains more than 3,900 chemicals including nicotine, cyanide, ammonia, cadmium, acetone and arsenic. Cigarette butts, often tossed into the sand or the sea by smokers, contain the toxic residue of all of these. A  recent ‘Clean Up Australia’ Rubbish report indicates cigarette butts are the most common item of litter collected at 12% (45,912), and unfortunately, seabirds, turtles and some fish ingest them – and their toxins. But even worse, as the butts swell in the stomach of the animal they cause false satiation and believing it’s full, the animal stops  eating and eventually starves to death. This has been reported for many sea turtles and birds, as well as some kinds of fish.

Ways Smoking Harms The Environment


While many Europeans whine about smoking bans indoors, realising the serious damage cigarettes cause, governments in some countries have started outdoor smoking bans. For example, Canada, South Africa, New Zealand and the USA have started to prohibit smoking in parks, cafe patios, beaches and other recreational areas, and sometimes also ban smoking from within a 5 metre radius of any open doors or windows in public spaces. Some cities around the world have enacted similar measures, including Hong Kong, Sydney and San Francisco, as has all of Costa Rica.

While strong anti-smoking campaigns in much of the developed world have been incredibly successful at reducing the numbers of smokers, these numbers continue to rise in nations that don’t strictly enforce bans, don’t show graphic depictions of cancers on packages, don’t restrict tobacco sales to minors – or worse yet, show smoking in a glamorous light (yes, we’re talking about you, French fashion magazines!)

It’s time to wake up! It is essential for all of us that governments around the world do instigate all of these measures, not just to protect human health, but the planet as a whole.

References for this article


Main image: Pashuta photography

Jody McCutcheon

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  • Reply
    Sep 30, 2013 at 12:58 am

    There need to be more crackdowns on smoking and smokers. They do so much damage to those around them and the planet! Smoking should be banned except for certain smoking bars, far away from civilised society.

  • Reply
    Jun 13, 2015 at 4:48 pm

    Totally agree, Patricia! It should be seen as a slow form of suicide (or in some cases, murder!)

    • Reply
      Sep 6, 2017 at 8:48 am

      Totally agree 🙂

      • Reply
        May 24, 2018 at 1:01 pm

        willy wellie

  • Reply
    Hasse Karlgreen
    Mar 25, 2016 at 2:01 pm

    I am 100% agree with your report. The smoking is very harmful for the environment. Environmental tobacco smoke is a major contributor of air pollution particles. In environment get polluted because of smoke dangerous particle.

  • Reply
    Nov 29, 2017 at 2:36 am

    When was this article published?

  • Reply
    Not giving it out
    Jan 15, 2018 at 12:04 am

    Smoking is so scary honestly I’m super glad I didn’t get a cigarette in my hands 🚬

    • Reply
      Jan 15, 2018 at 4:25 am

      Agreed! Cannot understand why people choose to start smoking…

  • Reply
    5 Other Ways your Lifestyle Affects the Ocean (Apart from Single Use Plastic!)
    Oct 28, 2018 at 9:27 pm

    […] There are so many reasons  not to smoke, but did you know it' a massive environmental hazard? The process of creating tobacco & cigarette creates large amounts of toxic waste polluting the soil. Cigarette butts are also one of the most common waste matter found in water ways. The filters don't biodegrade and are often eaten by fish, when it will stay in their stomach. It's no secret that cigarettes contain loads of toxic chemicals, and a lot of them are then released or ingested with the butts. On top of cigarettes & cigarette butts, lighters & tobacco wrappers are also very common items found in coastal cleanups. And that's just regarding marine life, smoking affects the environment in so many other ways. […]

  • Reply
    Nov 4, 2018 at 3:21 pm

    I just moved to Paris and people here smoke so much! It’s especially annoying when you’re just trying to walk down the street and other people’s smoke is getting in your lungs. Just the other day I was walking and there was a lady smoking in front of me and it was a narrow sidewalk so I couldn’t pass her, so for like five minutes I had no choice but to breathe in her smoke. It shouldn’t be legal to poison people who just exist near you and can’t do anything about it.

    • Reply
      Nov 4, 2018 at 6:50 pm

      Oh girl…I feel you! I lived in Paris for over 5 years and though everyone thought it was ‘living the dream’ being there, the cigarette smoke was absolutely disgusting! People even smoked in my gym!! (which had no air conditioning, btw). And let’s not even talk about the diesel pollution…I even saw little teens, like 12-15 years old, smoking. Beside their parents sometimes!! Bizarre culture.

  • Reply
    Sep 14, 2019 at 8:53 pm

    Shared this article … I took a picture of a barge that had “protect the environment: under it read “No Smoking” As I had quit over 10 years ago… this got me thinking to look at the research of this. Your article came up first… Thank you!!

    • Reply
      Sep 15, 2019 at 5:26 am

      Thanks so much Gem! Glad the article was useful, and congrats for kicking the habit!

  • Reply
    Sep 25, 2019 at 11:07 pm

    Good article. I walk over a mile away from my house and I have picked up cigarette butts, plastic bottles, caps, and other garbage for the last 2 years. Not a day goes by that I do not pick up a few cigarette butts. It is a beautiful walk and includes a middle school with woods, and places for kids to play. I know that other people walk that area and yet nobody stops to pick up any trash they may see. There are several garbage cans along the way and yet people do not use them. I am always amazed to see people still throwing cigarette butts and entire half eaten Mc Donald meals with bags out their auto windows. When I first started being the garbage lady I picked up two large bags of garbage that had probably been there for awhile. My walking route is clean and green now. I doubt that anyone wonders why it looks prettier than other areas. It is my way to help with climate change whether it is appreciated or not. I was the only non smoker in my family as a child. Even most of my friends smoked. This was the 60’s and all I knew was that I thought it was a stupid and dirty habit. My mother and brother both died smoking from emphysema. They were on oxygen and still smoking. It must be quit an addicting habit and I feel for people who struggle with quitting. My sister smokes 1 or 2 cigarettes a day and she can not quit. I hate when she comes into the house after smoking. She is very defensive if I ask her to please not come in right away or to keep the doors and windows closed. She can no longer smell properly and thinks I am making a big deal out of it all. No sense in showing her this article as she would be pissed.

    • Reply
      Sep 26, 2019 at 2:27 am

      Thanks for your comments, Debbie! I think we all have a relative like your sister, unfortunately….

  • Reply
    Sep 29, 2019 at 3:06 pm

    great post thanks for sharing

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