The tobacco industry is a much bigger threat than many realize because it is one of the world’s biggest polluters, whether it’s leaving mountains of trash or causing global warming, a accused the WHO on Tuesday.
The World Health Organization has accused the industry of causing widespread deforestation, diverting much-needed land and water from food production in poor countries, dumping plastic and chemical waste and emitting millions tons of carbon dioxide.
In its report released on World No Tobacco Day, the UN agency called on the tobacco industry to be held to account and foot the cleanup bill.
The Tobacco: Poisoning Our Planet report looks at the impacts of the entire cycle, from plant growth to tobacco product manufacturing, consumption and waste.
While the health effects of tobacco have been well documented for decades – with smoking still causing more than eight million deaths worldwide each year – the report focuses on its wider environmental consequences.
The results are “quite devastating”, Ruediger Krech, director of health promotion at the WHO, told TNZT, calling the industry “one of the biggest polluters we know”.
The industry is responsible for the loss of some 600 million trees each year, while tobacco cultivation and production uses 200,000 hectares of land and 22 billion tonnes of water annually, according to the report.
It also emits around 84 million tonnes of carbon dioxide, he said.
4.5 trillion cigarette butts
Additionally, “tobacco products are the most common item on the planet, containing over 7,000 toxic chemicals, which leach into our environment when discarded,” Krech said.
He pointed out that each of the approximately 4.5 trillion cigarette butts that end up in our oceans, rivers, sidewalks and beaches each year can pollute 100 liters of water.
And up to a quarter of all tobacco growers contract what’s called green tobacco sickness, or poisoning from nicotine they absorb through their skin.
Farmers who handle tobacco leaves all day consume the equivalent of 50 nicotine cigarettes a day, Krech said.
This is particularly worrying for the many children involved in tobacco farming.
“Imagine a 12-year-old exposed to 50 cigarettes a day,” he said.
Most tobacco is grown in poorer countries, where water and agricultural land are often scarce, and where these crops are often grown at the expense of vital food production, the report says.
Tobacco cultivation also accounts for around 5% of global deforestation and leads to the depletion of precious water resources.
At the same time, the processing and transportation of tobacco accounts for a significant share of global greenhouse gas emissions, with the equivalent of one-fifth of the carbon footprint of the global airline industry.
In addition, products like cigarettes, smokeless tobacco and e-cigarettes are also contributing significantly to the global buildup of plastic pollution, the WHO has warned.
Cigarette filters contain microplastics – the tiny fragments that have been detected in every ocean and even at the bottom of the world’s deepest pit – and are the second-largest form of plastic pollution globally, according to the report.
And yet, despite tobacco industry marketing, the WHO has pointed out that there is no evidence that filters offer any proven health benefits over smoking unfiltered cigarettes.
The UN agency urged policymakers around the world to treat cigarette filters as single-use plastics and consider banning them.
He also denounced the fact that taxpayers around the world had covered the high costs of cleaning up the mess of the tobacco industry.
Each year, China, for example, pays around $2.6 billion and India around $766 million, while Brazil and Germany each pay around $200 million to clean up discarded tobacco products, according to the report.
The WHO has urged more countries to follow the so-called polluter pays principle, such as France and Spain.
It’s important, Krech said, that “the industry actually pays for the mess it creates.”