The human health impacts of tobacco use are well-documented. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates more than 8 million tobacco-related deaths per year by 2030 – 10 percent of all global deaths annually. This makes tobacco use one of the largest preventable causes of non-communicable diseases. However, tobacco’s impact on environmental health is less well recognized but equally alarming. The primary and secondary health impacts of environmental tobacco smoke exposure include lung cancer, cardiovascular disease and pulmonary disease. Deforestation for tobacco growing includes loss of biodiversity, increases in atmospheric carbon dioxide, soil erosion and degradation, and water pollution. Soil erosion and degradation significantly impact food security, and water pollution coupled with pesticide use has serious health impacts, especially when it affects drinking water sources as a result of run-off from tobacco growing areas.
The tobacco manufacturing process itself produces liquid, solid and airborne wastes, including tobacco slurries and hydrochloric acid. Other toxic byproducts or chemicals used are toluene, methyl ethyl ketone and ammonia. Toluene and methyl ethyl ketone are known to have psychomotor performance effects that include CNS depression and statistically significant diminishment of visual-vigilance and choice-reaction times, according to a study reported in the International Archives of Occupational and Environmental Health. And ammonia is added to cigarette manufacturing to convert bound nicotine molecules in tobacco smoke into free nicotine molecules by raising their pH, a process known as “freebasing.”
According to WHO, cigarette butts “are the most commonly discarded piece of waste globally and are the most frequent item of litter picked up on beaches and water edges worldwide.” Hazardous substances, such as arsenic, lead, nicotine and ethyl phenol, from discarded cigarette butts are leached into aquatic environments and soil. Although not yet quantified, the large quantity of discarded butts may allow leachates to affect the quality of drinking water. This is plausible since other post-consumption wastes like medicines and pesticides have been found in drinking water sources. WHO states that “tobacco product waste may also prove to be a significant environmental contaminant and potential human health hazard through bioaccumulation in the food-chain.”
The WHO report, Tobacco and its Environmental Impact: An Overview, is the first of its kind and broadens the typical focus on dangers of smoking to individual health to include the impact of tobacco products on nature. The report recounts myriad ways tobacco scars the environment, to include:
- Tobacco waste contains more than 7000 toxic chemicals, including human carcinogens that poison the environment;
- Tobacco smoke emissions contribute thousands of tons of human carcinogens, toxicants and greenhouse gases to the environment;
- Tobacco waste is the largest type of litter by count globally;
- Up to 10 billion of the 15 billion cigarettes sold daily are disposed of in the environment;
- Cigarette butts account for 30-40 percent of all items collected in coastal and urban clean-ups.
Additional findings from the report include:
Tobacco threatens all people, and national and regional development, in many ways, including:
- Poverty: An estimated 860 million adult smokers live in low- and middle-income countries. Many studies show that in the poorest households spending on tobacco products often represents more than 10 percent of total household expenditure, which translates to less money for food, education and healthcare.
- Children and education: Between 10 and 14 percent of children from tobacco-growing families miss class because of working in tobacco fields, thus reducing education opportunities.
- Women: Between 60 and 70 percent of tobacco farm workers are women, putting them in close contact with hazardous chemicals.
- Health: Tobacco contributes to 16 percent of all non-communicable disease (NCDs) deaths.
Tobacco’s health and economic costs:
- Tobacco use currently kills more than 7 million people every year and costs households and governments more than US $1.4 trillion through healthcare expenditure and lost productivity.
Taxation as a tool to control tobacco:
- Governments could generate an additional US $141 billion more than the nearly US $ 270 billion currently collected by increasing tobacco excise tax revenues each year, simply from raising taxes on cigarettes by just US $0.80 per pack (equivalent to one international dollar) in all countries.
WHO asked governments to implement strong tobacco control measures as part of its World No Tobacco Day 2017, celebrated on May 30. These include banning tobacco marketing and advertising, promoting plain packaging of tobacco products, raising excise taxes and making indoor public places and workplaces smoke-free.
“Tobacco is a major barrier to development globally,” says Douglas Bettcher, MD, PhD and director of WHO’s Department for the Prevention on NCDs. “Tobacco-related death and illness are drivers of poverty, leaving households without breadwinners, diverting limited household resources to purchase tobacco products rather than food and school materials, and forcing many people to pay for medical expenses. But action to control it will provide countries with a powerful tool to protect their citizens and futures.”
- World No Tobacco Day 2017: Beating Tobacco for Health, Prosperity, the Environment and National Development; World Health Organization. http://www.who.int/mediacentre/news/releases/2017/no-tobacco-day/en/
- The Environmental and Health Impacts of Tobacco Agriculture, Cigarette Manufacture and Consumption; World Health Organization. http://www.who.int/bulletin/volumes/93/12/15-152744/en/
- Dick, RB; Setzer, JV; Wait, R; Hayden, MB; Taylor, BJ; Tolos, B; Putz-Anderson, V; “Effects of Acute Exposure of Toluene and Methyl Ethyl Ketone on Psychomotor Performance. International Archives of Occupational and Environmental Health, 1984; 54(2): 91-109.