Forgotten Poison: How Cigarettes Hurt the Environment



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They used to say, “smoke means progress.” What “they” meant was that the appearance of a smokestack somewhere in or around your town or city was a good thing.

That smokestack, spewing out all of its voluminous toxicity, meant jobs. That smokestack was necessary to fuel industry at the turn of the last century. That smokestack was essential to producing the vital building blocks of the nation, things like steel, cars, and textiles.

Now we know better. Now, smoke means something else, not only for the human body but the wider world as well.

The extent of the environmental devastation cigarettes are responsible for is vast. Starting with the cultivation of tobacco, then moving on to the manufacture of cigarettes,

and then to when smokers dispose of them, at every stage of the life of a cigarette, there is some negative consequence to the environment.

We’ll be taking a look at some of those consequences. But we’ll also explore the impact (or lack thereof) that e cigs are having on reversing the contamination that cigarettes wreck on the planet.

The Life of a Cigarette

The creation of a cigarette involves much harm to both humans and the Earth. The growing and harvesting of tobacco are fraught with dangers. The former causes deforestation across massive tracts of land to make way for tobacco crops.

The latter, due to the nature of the tobacco plant, causes workers to fall ill with what’s known as Green Tobacco Sickness (GTS). Excessive exposure to the nicotine in the leaves of the plant is what causes GTS.

Workers experience the same symptoms of nicotine poisoning that e-cigarette users feel when they come in contact with liquid nicotine. Symptoms like nausea, dizziness, and headaches are common among tobacco harvesters, some of who are children as young as twelve-years-old.

Growing tobacco puts immense strain on the environment. A few of the consequences of tobacco cultivation include:

  • Loss of biodiversity
  • Soil erosion and degradation
  • Water pollution
  • Carbon dioxide emissions

These are only the environmental consequences of growing tobacco. Compounding the damage that tobacco cultivation causes the environment is the fact that growing tobacco is the only option many subsistence farmers have to survive.

In countries like Malawi, tobacco cultivation supports nearly 500,000 workers and is the second biggest employer in the small African nation. At the same time, Malawi has lost almost 30% of its trees in the two decades that tobacco cultivation began to take root in the early 1990s.

The government does not shy away from these harrowing environmental effects. One spokesman admitted as much when he said, “the impact of the industry on natural resources is visible … this is evident in the reduction of trees that have been cut.”

The growing of tobacco presents stark challenges to all involved, except tobacco companies. They regularly lobby against environmental regulation and win, thanks to the lax regulatory regimes in many developing nations where tobacco is grown.

Farmers need a reliable cash crop, but the environmental impact generates effects only felt in the long-term, not the short-term. Tobacco plants significantly deplete the nutrient-rich soil, making it next to impossible to grow something else after the harvest.

The workers who harvest the tobacco sometimes made up of entire families, are at risk of nicotine poisoning. But the workers seem unfazed by the trade-off between working and getting sick.

One fifteen-year-old tobacco picker from North Carolina, working in the fields since he was twelve, said he wanted to work picking tobacco.

“To me it’s kind of messed up,” he said, referring to the Human Rights Watch report that exposed the dark side of tobacco cultivation. “You got all these other people coming out here. People my age can do it. I don’t see the problem with it. It’s just more help.”

An anti-child labor advocate summed up the worker’s dilemma, which is like the plight faced by African tobacco farmers – their survival is tied inextricably to the hazardous plant. The workers and farmers may be aware of the dangers, but “being able to substitute the loss of income is something completely different.”

A Cigarette is Born

The growing and harvesting of tobacco poses health risks to tobacco workers and causes damage to the environment. But the production stage of cigarettes also causes widespread harm to both.

The World Health Organization estimates that the manufacture of cigarettes, in only one year causes over 2 000 000 tonnes of solid waste to be released into the environment. But that was back in 1995.

The WHO now estimates that since the production of cigarettes has increased annually from 5 to 6.3 trillion, those initial figures have also risen. Taking increased output into consideration, the WHO now believes that cigarettes factories have produced over a span of twenty years:

  • 45,000,000 tonnes of solid waste
  • 6,000,000 tonnes of nicotine waste
  • 4,000,000 tonnes of chemical waste

Almost every facet of making a cigarette involves some form of environmental degradation. Chemicals used in the bleaching of cigarette paper, like ammonia and hydrochloric acid seep into the groundwater as a result of run-off from cigarette factories.

The filters in filtered cigarettes are non-biodegradable. Cellulose acetate, the inorganic material that cigarette “butts” are made from takes over a dozen years to decompose.

And in the time it takes for cigarette butts to degrade, they contribute to an almost insurmountable amount of environmental catastrophe. The amount of cigarettes littered each year, nearly 4.5 trillion, is close to the number of cigarettes produced each year, making cigarette butts the most significant source of litter on the planet.

Out the Window

It seems incredible that something as small as a cigarette butt can cause so much damage. That’s why most people don’t think twice about tossing their butt out wherever they please.

But the see-no-evil approach taken by many smokers (over 75% of smokers admit to tossing out their butts) toward their butts ends up having real-world consequences.

A cigarette butt is the memory of a cigarette. It retains all those things that went into its production, things like pesticides, herbicides, tar, carcinogenic chemicals, and of course, nicotine.

And on its journey to its eventual demise, a cigarette butt can leave a treacherous wake. When left soaking in bodies of water like rivers, lakes and the ocean, cigarette butts produce substances called leachates, which creates what can only be called toxic sludge.

The amalgam of all these deadly chemicals in one substance causes death in almost half of all marine life that comes in contact with it. And if dead fishes and birds weren’t enough, cigarette butts are also notorious for killing humans in both a direct and indirect way: fire.

According to the World Health Organization, cigarette butts “remain the single most important cause of death related to fires,” with the figure standing at 540 deaths for every 2855 deaths related to fire in 2011.

In the UK, the figures are, more or less the same. In 2011, cigarettes and unextinguished cigarette butts were culpable for 34 deaths out of 1000 fires. Cigarettes were also responsible for 7% of all house fires in the England and Ireland in the years 2013-2014.

What is To Be Done?

Cigarettes are attacked continuously for their adverse health effects that their environmental impact is mostly forgotten. And yet, the breadth of the damage the production and disposal of a single cigarette can cause is breathtaking.

Environmental groups have long agitated the Big Tobacco companies for tighter environmental controls. And some, like Philip Morris and British American Tobacco, have responded. They have sponsored reforestation initiatives and have committed to reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

Countries like Canada, New Zealand, and the United States have now started banning smoking in public places, to reduce the number of cigarette butts thrown into the environment. Individual cities have also adopted new measures to deal with the scourge of disposed of cigarette butts, much like they enacted bills to regulate the use of plastic bags and bottles.

Light at the End

But, cigarettes and tobacco are not going anywhere. That’s why the emergence of e-cigarettes is seen by some as the only bright light to counteract not just the negative health consequences of smoking but the environmental ones as well.

E-cigs do not produce smoke. They vaporize an e-liquid containing food-grade ingredients, and liquid nicotine, creating an inhalable aerosol, which is, according to most scientific studies, not entirely harmless. But it is much less toxic than second-hand smoke.

They also do not burn anything. Some versions are disposable, but the majority of them are reusable, which cuts down significantly on the waste they produce. Their impact on the environment is also considerably less than that of cigarettes.

While some vaporizers have built-in, internal batteries, as long as they are correctly disposed of, these devices pose little to no risk to the plant and animal life around them. But many people remain unconvinced about the safety and legitimacy of these new devices.

The fear many people show toward e-cigarettes is tragic, given the overwhelming amount of evidence of the physical, environmental and social harm caused over the lifespan of a single cigarette.

They may not be the cure-all that some say they are, but they at least represent one step toward at ensuring the survival of not only people but the planet as well.

About the Author: Phyllis Baker guest blogs about health issues, drugs rehab and addiction treatment. Currently, she is engaged in largest US quitting smoking community.

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