Effects of smoking on the environment

In recent decades, many studies have shown how unhealthy smoking is. But did you know that cigarettes not only have a strong impact on health, but also on the environment? Why smoking cessation pays off in two ways.

Tobacco consumption and environmental awareness in Germany

It is estimated that worldwide there are
one billion smokers, who consume about 5.8 trillion (5.800.000.000.000) Cigarette smoking. Global consumption of cigarettes is even expected to increase, according to the World Health Organization (WHO) projection.

The Federal Ministry of Health is more confident about Germany than the WHO, publishing on its website: "Among adolescents, there has been a marked decline in smoking rates. Here, for the past fifteen years, there has been a substantial reduction in the proportion of 12- to 17-year-olds smoking. It has declined from 27.5 percent in 2001 to 6.6 percent in 2018. Smoking is also declining among young adults aged 18 to 25 years. In 2001, 44.5 percent smoked. In 2018, 24.8 percent still did so." Currently, 23.8 percent of adults in Germany smoke, according to ministry data.

In Germany, many people live in an environmentally conscious way. A survey of insured persons by the AOK Scientific Institute showed that environmental protection is not a marginal problem.
Pollution of water and air is a particular concern for respondents. Environmentally conscious people buy, among other things, organic vegetables from the region and Fairtrade coffee, ride bicycles instead of cars as often as possible and try to avoid plastic waste – but some of them are smokers. How does it fit together?

How harmful is smoking to the environment?

The life cycle of a cigarette is a good illustration of the concrete effects smoking has on the environment: First, there is damage from the cultivation and production of cigarettes (1), followed by the effects from smoking itself (2). Finally, discarded cigarette butts poison the earth for decades (3).

Exploitative working conditions: 90 percent of tobacco crops are grown in developing countries such as Bangladesh, Pakistan, Zimbabwe, Tanzania and Malawi, where there are already food shortages. The problem is exacerbated by tobacco cultivation: The areas under cultivation are so large that space is lost for growing food crops. The workforce includes many children: even five-year-olds work in the fields for up to 12 hours a day. People sometimes suffer from the so-called "green tobacco disease": direct skin contact with tobacco leaves leads to nicotine poisoning.
Cleared forests: Six trillion cigarettes are produced annually, and tobacco is grown on about four million acres of land. Forests and scrubland have to give way for plantations. In addition, a lot of firewood is needed to dry the tobacco plants. In affected regions, about half of forest loss is due to growing and drying tobacco. WHO estimates that at least 6500 hectares of forest are cleared each year for tobacco cultivation.
Depleted soils and desertification: The tobacco plant is particularly sensitive compared to other crops. It removes numerous nutrients from the soil. As a result, large quantities of pesticides are used, which are harmful to human health and the environment. Because tobacco plants do not protect the topsoil from wind and rain, soil erosion also occurs. The result: deserts are formed. Areas used for tobacco cultivation can often no longer be cultivated for many years.
Billions of tons of water consumed and polluted: More than 22 billion tons of water are used annually to grow and process tobacco – in countries where water is scarce. By comparison, this is 2.5 times the amount of water used by the whole of the UK in a year. Smoking 20 cigarettes a day for 50 years is responsible for the consumption of 1.4 billion liters of water by that alone. In addition, there is the contamination of groundwater by the pesticides used. Fish die, entire areas of land are no longer suitable for growing food, and the pollutants are reabsorbed by humans through the food chain.
Polluted air: The production of cigarettes releases greenhouse gases, which fuel climate change. An immense amount of coal and wood is burned, especially to dry the tobacco leaves. The amount emitted for the production and consumption of tobacco is equivalent to almost 84 million tons of carbon dioxide annually. By comparison, this is how much the whole of Israel or Peru emits in a year.

Carbon dioxide emitted by smoking drives global warming. Various other substances are released into the air. On average, 1.9 to 5.3 milligrams of the neurotoxin nicotine are produced by smoking a single cigarette. About 4800 other substances are found in tobacco smoke, including, for example, ammonia, benzene and formaldehyde. They pollute the environment and many of the substances are carcinogenic.

Contaminated water: Tobacco cultivation and consumption generates 25 million tons of waste a year, including discarded cigarette butts. Up to two thirds of the smoked cigarettes are "disposed" on the ground. They thus hold the sad record as the world's most common waste product. They are also the most common litter on beaches, according to the Ocean Conservancy organization. But the butts are not just litter, they are toxic, carcinogenic hazardous waste. The contained poisons are washed out by the rain and land so in lakes, rivers and in the sea. There, they can poison fish, birds and marine mammals or permanently alter the behavior and genes of the animals. Via the food chain, humans also ingest these substances.
Plastics in the environment: Although the plant substance cellulose is used as the basis for cigarette filters, the plastic cellulose acetate is produced during processing. The filters are hardly degradable in nature: they need up to 15 years to decompose, in salt water even several hundred years.
Forest Fires: Carelessly throwing away still glowing cigarette butts can cause fires. Not infrequently, a cigarette is the trigger for this. Entire forests can ignite in this way.

Why there are no organic cigarettes to buy

In 2017, the WHO published its first comprehensive report on the link between tobacco consumption and climate change. The result: Tobacco threatens the earth's resources and causes greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to climate change. It is grown under alarming working conditions in developing countries to the detriment of the environment. The environment is massively polluted.

A co-author of the WHO study, Nicholas Hopkinson, describes it as follows: "Smokers in developed nations are literally and metaphorically burning up the resources of poorer countries". In 2010, the Federal Supreme Court handed down a ruling: Tobacco companies are no longer allowed to label their products "organic" or "organic classify. This omission must be registered and implemented by all states, as it was also specified in the EU Tobacco Directive.

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