The Environmental Impact of Tobacco.


“Do you mind if I smoke?”

Yes I do actually, because the impact of cigarette smoking and tobacco on the natural environment is even more damaging than the false sincerity and pretence of courtesy with which that question is normally delivered.

A comprehensive report on the impact of tobacco on the natural environment is the June 1995 Bellagio Statement which was the result of contributions from 22 international organisations examining the impact of tobacco and cigarette smoking on the health of people and the natural environment.

The international group concluded that “tobacco poses a major challenge, not just to health, but also to environmental sustainability” primarily through deforestation, damage to soil through pesticides and fertilizers, the production of waste and the leaching of nutrients into soil.

Much of the damage is done even before a lit cigarette pumps unfiltered smoke into the air which we all breathe.

Tobacco chews up a lot of wood. In Southern Africa alone, tobacco production is said to account for approximately 12% of deforestation in the region because wood is required to cure tobacco leaves and to construct curing barns. Furthermore, throughout the world, an estimated 200,000 hectares of forests and woodlands are cut down each year due to tobacco farming. Compounding the damage is the fact that tobacco is produced predominantly in developing countries.

That’s before anyone takes a drag.

Land cleared for tobacco farming is normally used once. The hungry tobacco plant itself depletes the soil of nutrients such as nitrogen, potassium and phosphorus.  This means that more forests and woodlands are cleared every year in order to create new areas for the cultivation of tobacco, thus stripping the earth of trees which can soak up the CO2 that is constantly being pumped into the atmosphere.

That’s before your clothes stink of cigarettes.

Furthermore, the land cleared in order to grow tobacco could otherwise be used to grow food in countries where many people go hungry.

That’s before non-smokers suffer from passive smoking.

Tobacco cultivation follows similar practices to other large scale farming through the use of pesticides and fertilizers. The harmful chemicals designed to protect the crop from insects have been known to harm the farmers working with the crop. The harmful chemicals also destroy the long term fertility of the soil and leach into the groundwater and waterways downstream from the tobacco plantations.

That’s before anyone asks you for a light.

We all know that non-biodegradable cigarette butts cause extensive damage to our local environment, parks, waterways and sea life, but the problem of waste is even more significant. In 1995 alone, the global tobacco industry produced an estimated 2.3 billion kilograms of manufacturing waste and 209 million kilograms of chemical waste. The World Health Organisation (WHO) states that cigarette smoking is increasing annually throughout the world so it stands to reason that the amount of waste is also growing every year. These figures also do not include the waste associated with obligatory smoking components such as filters, lighters, packaging and matches. In fact, non-biodegradable filters have been cited as the single most collected item in beach clean ups – yes, even outnumbering left footed thongs/flip flops.

Finally, “according to the Economic Input-Output Lifecycle Assessment (EIOLCA) models developed by Carnegie Mellon University’s Green Design Institute, the $47 billion tobacco industry in the United States was responsible for generating about 16 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalents. American automobiles emit an average of about 4-4 tons of carbon per year (driving 12,000 miles), which means that if cigarettes were to disappear from the United States the country would see a carbon benefit equivalent to taking nearly 4 million cars off the road.” (Fact Sheet, Environmental Impact of Tobacco, March 2013, Multnomah County).

That’s just in The United States.

That’s before anyone even asks you: Do you mind if I smoke?



World Health Organisation (WHO), The Bellagio Report, 1995.

Novotny T, Slaughter E. Tobacco Product Waste:An Environmental Approach to Reduce Tobacco Consumption. Curr. Envir. Health Report. 2014. 2014/05/06:1-9.

Osmond DL. Kang J. Soil Facts: Nutrient Removal by Crops in North Carolina: North Carolina Cooperative Extension Service; 2008.

Slaugher E. Gersberg RM, Watanabe K, Rudolph J, Stransky C, Novotny TE. Toxicity of cigarette butts and their chemical components, to marine life and freshwater fish. Tobacco control. 2011 May 20 Suppl. 1:125-9.

Image: Andrew Pons




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2 responses to “The Environmental Impact of Tobacco.”

  1. It is a sad reality. My mom and my uncle smoking and I can see near me that who smoke doesn’t like to recieve a negative of this question. One day the “account” comes and it is very expensive in all the senses and for everyone envolved. 😢 And by the way, I also care if someone smokes near me and my children, if is my mom or my uncle…


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