Tobacco and its environmental impact: an overview
The world faces many environmental challenges. Healthy soil, an adequate supply of clean and fresh water and clean air are just a few of the basic necessities that enable humans to live, but which are strained by growing populations and the human demand for the Earth’s precious resources.
Tobacco threatens many of the Earth’s resources. Its impact is felt in ways that extend far beyond the effects of the smoke released into the air by tobacco products when consumed.
The harmful impact of the tobacco industry in terms of deforestation, climate change, and the waste it produces is vast and growing, and until now these aspects of the tobacco control picture have received relatively little attention from researchers and policy-makers.
This overview aims to change this by explaining what is known about the environmental consequences of the life cycle of tobacco – from cultivation to consumer waste – and the long-term impact of this life cycle.
The discussion covers all stages, from growing and curing tobacco leaves to creating and distributing tobacco products; and from the impacts of burning and using tobacco to the post-consumption waste products such as smoke, discarded butts and packaging that it generates. Estimates of the type and scale of environmental damage or waste from each phase of the life cycle are included where data are available.
This work is part of the effort to reduce tobacco consumption and raise awareness of its negative impact on human health and well-being. In 2003, World Health Organization (WHO) Member States unanimously adopted the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (WHO FCTC) – to date the only international treaty under the auspices of WHO.
In discussions that led to its adoption, Member States recognized the impact of tobacco on the broader environment. Article 18 of the WHO FCTC explicitly states that: “In carrying out their obligations under this Convention, the Parties agree to have due regard to the protection of the environment and the health of persons in relation to the environment in respect of tobacco cultivation and manufacture within their respective territories.” Since it came into force, Parties to the WHO FCTC have worked to minimize the substantial negative impact of tobacco on human health.
These efforts have targeted tobacco use and the protection of non-tobacco users from second-hand and third-hand smoke (residual nicotine and other chemicals left on a variety of indoor surfaces by tobacco smoke).
But as the world struggles to cope with climate change, some Parties to the WHO FCTC have become increasingly concerned about the environmental impacts of tobacco too.