The environmental impact of tobacco

The tobacco industry, harmful to the environment

We all know the negative impacts of tobacco on the human health, but less on the environment. From a tobacco farms to its consumption as a cigarette, the carbon assessment is significant. It’s not the cigarette smoke which pollutes the most but the whole of the tobacco industry activities. The latter represents a non negligent impact on the climate change and on the ecosystems degradation.impact of tobacco

Forests sacrificed to make cigarettes

A massive deforestation which takes part in the climatic change

The tobacco industry is responsible for 1,5% of the global deforestation. Every year, about 200 000 hectares of primary forests disappear for the benefit of plantations. It mostly concerns developing countries, but not exclusively.

The tobacco doesn’t spare any area, since it is cultivated everywhere in the world : in Africa (Malawi, Zimbabwe, South Africa…), in America (Peru, Brazil, United States…), in Asia (China, India, Indonesia, South Korea…), without forgetting Europe. China, India and Brazil at the three biggest world producers, just in front of the United States.

To give a few examples, the tobacco production is responsible for 80% of the deforestation in Malawi, 40% in South Korea, and 12% in South Africa. However, it’s not the major farming cultivation : only 3% of the Malawi’s farmers grow tobacco. Then why so many trees are sacrificed?

impact of tobacco-

The tobacco, as every intensive cultivation, needs inevitably huge agricultural areas, taken on the forests areas. Except that this plant, unlike cereals for example, is not vital for the alimentation ! Worse, the cigarette manufacturing requires enormous wood quantities, to dry the leaves harvested in the fields, to make papers, filters and matches… because cigarettes need to be lit, since lighters are not widespread in the less developed countries in the world.

The tobacco farming releases greenhouse gases, simply because of the decline of forest cover. Trees are cut down to make room for new plantations, because tobacco easily exhausts the soil ressources. Forests also provide wood needed to dry the leaves. If the drying is not done by wood fire, gas is used. In any case, this practice releases big quantities of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

Consequences : ecosystems at risk

Destroying forests is increasing the environment desertification, the soils impoverishment and erosion, inducing landslides, rockslides and inundations, since tree roots are not maintaining the ground anymore. It is also threatening indigenous tribes because tobacco producers sometimes exploit their ancestral forests, either to spread the plantations or to get more wood fire. The last victims are the locals endangered species. Primates, birds, tigers, insects and others see their natural habitat destroyed by the tobacco culture.

impact of tobacco-

impact of tobacco-

Tobacco industrials took actions to fight against the deforestation issue, but these are questionable. They advice manufacturers to plant trees near tobacco fields, to provide wood fire. But when the trees are mis chosen, such an action has negative consequences. In Kenya, tobacco farmers plant eucalyptus or cypress, because they have the advantage of growing fast. Yet, they are not suitable to this environment: they need more water resources and compete with the local plants. Tobacco farmers also prefer to directly sell this precious wood rather than burn it to dry tobacco leaves. The forest destruction goes on.

A polluting and dangerous crop

The recurring use of pesticides, toxic for the environment and the wildlife

Tobacco is a difficult plant to grow. It is vulnerable to many diseases, and asks to be protected from every pest. It uses much more nutrients than other seeds : 6 times more potassium than wheat for example. Quickly, soils become improper to cultivation. Hence a massive recourse to fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides.

Before to plant tobacco, farmers proceed to the soil fumigation, which consist of destroying every harmful organism. Officially banned today, the methane bromide is however still used in many countries. This substance attacks the ozone layer when it reaches the atmosphere.  

impact of tobacco-

Among pesticides, tobacco farmers use aldicarbe, chlorpyrifos and imidacloprid. These are insecticides particularly harmful for the environment, the wildlife and of course for the human being. The chlorpyrifos and the imidacloprid are bad for the pollinator insects : they affect the bees nervous system and disrupt their olfactive memory.

Every small animals living in cultures are affected. Without forgetting that these chemicals infiltrate soils and pollute water tables and rivers, endangering the aquatic life as well as the local populations depending from these water resources.

Risks for the human being

All of these products previously mentioned are found in tobacco, and thus in the cigarettes. They constitute risks for the consumer’s health. But what about the farmers, upstream to the production ? They are exposed to toxic pesticides almost daily. In many countries, local farmers are abusively exploited by the tobacco industry : illegal work, children put to work, misery…

The child labour in tobacco plantations exists in Indonesia, in Peru and even in the United States ! It is still widespread because farmers work within family, they are poor and need the children wage. It also happens that the tobacco industrials justify this exploitation by tradition, since it happens for generations. Yet, they are often misinformed about the risks they incur manipulating pesticides and tobacco barehanded.

Indeed, repeated contact with humid tobacco leaves can lead to a nicotine intoxication, absorbed at dangerous rates by the skin. It is what we call the green tobacco disease. Kids are particularly sensitive to it, considering their fragile composition. It causes dizziness, nauseas, vomiting and headaches.

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Put an end to the tobacco industry

An activity strongly challenging

Every aspects of the tobacco industry are source of pollution : the tobacco plantation with huge amounts of chemicals, the cigarette packaging, the cigarette butt thrown in the environment which takes years to decompose.

See also pollution due to cigarette butts.

To think about : the tobacco fields deprive some countries of vital agricultural areas which could be dedicated to the food production. If we replaced tobacco plantations by subsistence crops, we could feed 10 to 20 millions more people. This estimate gives a lot to thing about when it’s known that populations from producer countries such as Malawi and Zimbabwe suffer from starvation.

Animal exploitation

Beyond the degradations of the environment locally and internationally, it is then the animals who suffer from the tobacco industry. Although nothing forces this action, the majority of brands test their tobacco on thousands of animals each year : dogs, monkeys, rabbits

As mentioned in Everything there is to know about animal experiments, the industrial tests preceding sales are usuals, yet useless. A few rare brands have decided to oppose to it, such as “American Spirit”, “Pueblo” or “Fleur du pays”.

The biological tobacco ?

The tobacco named biological increase in popularity since a few years. Its benefit is to eliminate the use of pesticides, which protects simultaneously the environment and the farmers. However, it doesn’t change the fact that agricultural areas would be better used for more essential plantations. And we mustn’t forget that tobacco contains naturally hundreds of toxic substances such as nicotine and carbon monoxide. To this, industrials add a quantity of additives, tar, aromas or sugars, to make the cigarette more attractive for the consumer.

A hijacked use

Tobacco is traditionally a medicinal plant, same as coca. In indigenous tribes in Amazonia, it even allows to treat addictions ! Brown tobacco from Amazonia or mapacho, can be smoked, chewed, drank as a juice or a syrup, used as a powder or a paste. It is consumed in a ritual way or with the presence of a healer. This remedy has been disfigured after its exportation in the Western Hemisphere and its industrial processing.

Why stop smoking ?

For every reasons previously mentioned ! It will never be said enough that smoking kills. In addition to protect your health and the one to the people around you, it’s the planet stability which is at stake. Alternatives appear to exist with some tobacco brands, the use of lighters instead of matches, electronic cigarettes… But are they really efficient ?

Admittedly, lighters are not made of wood. However, they are not recyclable and are particularly polluting : they take about a century to decompose. Electronic cigarettes don’t contain tobacco, but are often disposable and contain plastics, heavy metals and lithium batteries dangerous for the environment. There is always a hidden side of which we don’t want to be aware of. The ideal would of course be to not smoke. To stop, it is recommended to get help.