Tobacco industry harms people and planet

by SEATCA / Pic by Bloomberg

TOBACCO not only kills over eight million people every year; it also massively harms the environment. From cultivation to manufacturing, distribution, consumption and post-consumption, tobacco endangers the environment, and the health and wellbeing of people.

Governments should make tobacco companies accountable for the harms that they cause the environment and include this in a comprehensive tobacco control strategy.

Each year, 340 to 680 million kg of cigarette butt litter are collected, topping the list of most common types of rubbish during coastal clean-ups. These single-use plastics also contain toxic chemicals that leach into the land and marine ecosystems and harm marine life and biodiversity.

Tobacco also pollutes the air that we breathe: With over 6.25 trillion cigarettes smoked worldwide every year, including 531 billion sticks in the Asean region, tobacco smoke contaminates the air with toxicants, carcinogens and pollutants.

Tobacco growing and curing contributes 5% of global deforestation through land clearing and tree cutting for firewood. Every year, more than 20 billion trees are cut down for tobacco companies to produce more than six trillion cigarettes.

In the Asean region, more than 302,746ha of arable land are dedicated to tobacco growing β€” valuable agricultural space which could have been used instead to grow food and other sustainable cash crops. Farmers growing and processing tobacco are also harmed by this deadly trade.

Tobacco farmers are exposed to toxic pesticides, such as dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane (DDT). Prolonged exposure to DDT may cause birth defects, benign and malignant tumours, genetic changes, blood disorders, neurological disorders and endocrine disruption.

Handling tobacco leaves may also cause Green Tobacco Sickness, a form of nicotine poisoning which causes headache, nausea, vomiting, chills and abdominal cramps.

The tobacco industry masks these harmful practices through tokenistic and fake corporate social responsibility (CSR) activities. These CSR activities may take the form of donations to sustainability initiatives or reporting on environmental standards that are self-serving.

In reality, the tobacco industry is contradictory to and has no place in sustainable development.

β€œThe WHO (World Health Organisation) Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC) mandates parties to protect the environment and human health related to tobacco growing and manufacturing. Governments should implement a comprehensive tobacco control strategy with solutions that make tobacco companies accountable for the damages they inflict on the environment,” explained Dr Ulysses Dorotheo, ED of the South-East Asia Tobacco Control Alliance (SEATCA).

These solutions can include environmental taxes, on top of the excise tax on tobacco, that may be used to cover the environmental costs of tobacco production, consumption and clean-up of tobacco waste products. Governments should also prohibit the tobacco industry from conducting CSR activities, as these sponsorships are used to cover up the harms that it is causing the environment and the health and wellbeing of people.


SEATCA is a multi-sectoral non-governmental alliance promoting health and saving lives by assisting Asean countries to accelerate and effectively implement the tobacco control measures contained in the WHO FCTC. (This article is in conjunction with the World No Tobacco Day 2022 on May 31.)