Tobacco and the Environment
The immense environmental damage caused by tobacco products starts before any user takes their first puff, and continues long after they throw it away. Consumption is only the middle step in a complex life cycle that produces pollution and harms the environment in multiple ways. To understand the full negative impact of tobacco use on the environment, it is necessary to consider the entire tobacco supply and value chains.
Tobacco products cause harm and pollute through their long and complex life cycle:
Environmental destruction begins when farmers use land to cultivate tobacco leaf above more sustainable crops. It continues with the curing and primary processing before tobacco leaves enter the manufacturing process at factories. After cigarettes and other tobacco products are manufactured and packaged, they garner an enormous carbon footprint as they travel across the world to get to consumers. These individuals will consume and dispose of the packaging—much of it non-recyclable and hazardous— and the toxic filters and other remnants of the product. Cigarette filters are plastic products that leach toxic chemicals, take years to break down, and are the number one most littered product in the world.
The life cycle of tobacco production and use has multiple negative consequences
Across the production process and broader supply chain of cigarettes and tobacco products, there are many negative consequences to the environment. To begin, vast amounts of carbon dioxide emissions released into the air are produced in farming and curing. The transport of tobacco leaf from the fields to the factories, and then the products from the factories to the consumers, generates further greenhouse gas emissions. Considering that most tobacco leaf and trillions of tobacco products are exported, these emissions are substantial, and demonstrably contribute to climate change.
The deforestation from expanding tobacco cultivation into new regions and/or because tobacco farmers clear new land to make a better living because of low selling prices or to replace land that is no longer productive leads to agricultural and urban land occupation. There is evidence that entire regions have been transformed in terms of land use, often moving from food production to tobacco. The proportionally heavier use of pesticides and fertilizers pollute the soil and harm human health. There is evidence that governments continue to permit or overlook the use of widely banned harmful chemicals such as aldicarb, chlorpyrifos and imidacloprid, among others. There is also terrestrial acidification because of the production of sulfur dioxide, a common byproduct of the tobacco curing process. Finally, the toxic byproducts from manufacturing and the discarded remnants from consuming (butts and packages) crowd our landfills and many other more fragile spaces that are not equipped to address this harm.
Simultaneously, fresh and marine water are polluted with substances such as nitrogen, phosphorus, and other pollutants. This occurs during tobacco cultivation, but also when cigarette butts and packaging made with micro-plastics and toxic ingredients are not appropriately disposed and end up in the soil, rivers, lakes, beaches, and ocean.
The Cigarette Butt Pollution Project warns about the negative consequences of butt waste on ecosystems. This damage to the environment is rarely made as salient as it should be. This project provides expert assistance to governments, communities, organizations, and individuals seeking to reduce the environmental burden of cigarette butt waste. For further information please visit their website.
Quality of Air
When cigarettes are lit and smoked, they pollute indoor and outdoor environments with mainstream (from the burning stick) and second hand smoke. They both include pollutants and toxic substances such as tar, ammonia, pyridine, formaldehyde, quinolone, styrene, benzene, acetaldehyde, and isoprene, among many others. A WHO study estimated that during a 5-year period, the amount of tar emitted to the global environment was between 137.7 and 451.3 million kilograms. All these substances cause harm to smokers and everyone around them. For more information on this, please visit the second hand smoke chapter of the Tobacco Atlas.
Estimates of Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) of tobacco
A comprehensive recent study by Zafeiridou and colleagues about tobacco’s global footprint across the supply chain that produced 6 trillion cigarettes worldwide in 2014 found the following:
- More than 5.3 million hectares were utilized to produce tobacco around the globe.
- There were 32.5 megatonnes (Mt=1 million tons) of green tobacco cultivated, which became 6.48 Mt of dry tobacco.
- The production process contributed almost 84 Mt of carbon dioxide, equivalent to nearly 0.2% of all emissions of this greenhouse gas.
- 490,000 tonnes of 1,4-dichlorobenzene were released to the environment, contributing to ecotoxicity. This is the same substance used as fumigant to destroy moths, molds, and mildews.
- More than 22 billion cubic meters of water were polluted and depleted.
- It is estimated that a single cigarette pollutes 3.7 liters of water and has a climate change contribution of 14 grams of carbon dioxide.
Importantly, the environmental impacts are not distributed equally regarding production and consumption. For instance, in Brazil, production is 13.18 times its consumption, while other countries produce nearly zero percent of the tobacco they consume, transferring many environmental costs towards producer countries. Many of these countries are in low- and middle-income countries further worsening global inequities on environment and health.
Recent research from Iran revealed that on-site tobacco production operations in irrigated and rainfed systems had a high negative impact on global warming because of carbon dioxide emissions, caused terrestrial ecotoxicity, and aquatic acidification due to the extensive use of chemical fertilizers.
Despite the harms that tobacco production cause to the environment illustrated by several life cycle assessments estimates, the tobacco industry has made efforts to cover its activities under a Corporate Social Responsibility mask. The tobacco industry has made attempts to market its products as environmentally friendly, in what is called “greenwashing”. This is partly due to weak and loose local regulations of tobacco industry activities in many countries. In addition, the environmentally negative consequences of new products, perhaps especially electronic cigarettes, has not been assessed fully, but nascent research suggests many of these products will have huge negative environmental impacts. In January 2024, the United Kingdom government announced a ban on disposable electronic cigarettes to address the estimated five million units that consumers were discarding weekly.
- Tobacco use imposes many negative environmental impacts throughout its entire life cycle, damaging land, water, and air, and contributing to climate change.
- Most of the countries that produce and export tobacco are low- or middle-income and in net terms they absorb costs from other countries’ – often higher-income—consumption, make global inequities worse.
- The tobacco industry continues to “greenwash” tobacco cultivation and cigarette production—i.e., presenting new production processes as “good” for the environment even when the fundamental damage changes little.
- The evidence of the environmental challenges presented here relates mainly to more traditional tobacco products like cigarettes, but scientists are only beginning to understand the likely massive negative environmental effects of newer products such as electronic cigarettes and heated tobacco products.