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. Not convinced? Keep reading.
1. A Cause of Deforestation
The cycle 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(1).
Tobacco farming accounts for about 1% of land use, yet causes a disproportionate 2–4% of global deforestation(2). 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.
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(3). 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.)
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(4). 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(5). 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(2). 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(1). Any way you look at it, cigarette smoking is bad for air quality, indoors or out.
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(6).
Worldwide, almost five trillion butts are littered each year(7). 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.
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(2). 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.
5. Contaminating the Oceans and Sea Animals
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.
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 (8). Some cities around the world have enacted similar measures, including Hong Kong, Sydney and San Francisco, as has all of Costa Rica(9).
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.
Main image: Pashuta photography